For many people, social distancing and lockdowns left them bereft of physical contact. Here, touch experts explain why it is so essential and what we lost in its absence
In a pandemic that has meant keeping 2 metres away from one another whenever possible, it appears that physical contact is beginning to return. Even handshakes are making a comeback: one poll found younger people were shaking hands again, although older generations are more uneasy about it. “We are wired to respond to emotional touch,” says Francis McGlone, a professor of neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores University. “My analogy is that [touch is] like a vitamin – if we are depleted, there are consequences in terms of our physical health. I make the same argument about the C-tactile afferents – the nerve fibre that evolved in all social mammals to provide the reward associated with close physical contact. When the fibre is stimulated, it does a number of measurable things – it lowers heart rate and it lowers cortisol, the stress hormone.” It’s one reason, he says with a laugh, he believes so many people got pets during lockdown: “That’s the brain recognising ‘I need to touch something’.”
For the pet-less, touch-starved, skin-hungry among us, physical contact is a welcome thing. Even before the pandemic, we were living through a “crisis of touch”; perhaps the enforced distance of the past 18 months has made us realise how vital touch is after all. For the people whose jobs rely heavily on touch, it’s been a particularly difficult time. Here’s how they are navigating its return.