In the beginning, before there is light, there is sensation. In the womb, touch starts to develop when the foetus is around eight weeks, before sight, sound, taste or hearing. Then, when a baby is born, he is laid on his mother’s chest. A baby, being pushed without warning into enormous and strange new circumstances, needs this immediate skin-to-skin contact. Breathing stabilises, heartbeat steadies and mother and child both relax.
“Putting them on the chest is best because that’s where they feel mum’s heartbeat. That gives them the reassurance that they are fine,” says Dr Mary Rauff, a senior consultant, obstetrician and gynaecologist at National University Hospital. “Compare that to what used to happen: the baby getting separated, cleaned and spanked by the nurse. Their first experience after they come out is a spanking? ‘What a horrible world this is!’”
Back in the days when newborns got slapped, we didn’t think much about touch—how it develops and affects us throughout our lifetime. But we’ve known for a few decades now that touch lays the foundations. It’s the basis of our sense of self, social behaviour and much of our well-being.
“People can become used to not being touched. And then to open themselves up again is a bit of a shock”
Skin-to-skin contact is just the beginning. Early touch between a parent and child, whether it’s a hug, massage or tickle, makes for infants who grow faster, sleep better and cry less. These kids develop into adults who are wired to innately interpret the touch of their fellow humans. Nearly four times out of five, we can accurately identify emotions like anger, fear, gratitude, sympathy, sadness, disgust and love from a touch alone. Teammates who high-five and shoulder-clap one another exponentially raise morale and lower stress. Touch leads to bigger tips for servers and higher rates of help from strangers, even if the touch is incidental and forgettable. It forges a connection and establishes another invisible thread in our ecosystem.
These threads have been stretched over the last year, arguably to a snapping point. An incidental touch in a train station, office break room, game arcade or cafe is no longer a thoughtless act. COVID-19 has put touch on trial; everything is potentially unsanitary, including each other. All of our social selves have been unplugged, to some extent, and consciousness of redrawn personal touch boundaries has reinforced that disconnect. Qualities like empathy, aid and concern have a tendency to bubble to the surface in the face of a threat. But when those human qualities are not only bolstered by but originate from the touching we can no longer do because of that crisis, how on earth do we comfort and heal?
Touch me not
Dealing with a pandemic means coming to terms with new social norms and violent changes to the cultural standards we live by. All of a sudden, there’s a new tactile regime to obey and not everyone has made the switch from the old to the ‘new normal’ way of things. When someone in Dr Martha Tara Lee’s life recently reached out for a fist bump, she automatically went to shake his hand. He pulled back, a look of shock and disgust on his face.
That fear of touch and the physical world gets into the bones. “What can a pandemic do? People can become used to not being touched. And then to open themselves up again is a bit of a shock,” Lee, a relationship counsellor and clinical sexologist, says. “Recently, a friend of mine shared that, when lockdown began to open up, they started having anxiety attacks in public places. Suddenly now, when you go out, the body is scared, right?”
Some of us are worse off than others when it comes to readjusting our expectations around touch in a pandemic. “Touch is some people’s love language,” Lee says. “And so to not be able to touch is really, really hellish for them. To have that touch, and suddenly have it taken away, is like taking away love. It makes them feel alone.”
Lee has seen ‘skin hunger’ develop in some of the people around her. In the absence of touch, skin hunger is a physical need, pangs in the body, for the touch of others. If it isn’t sated, a person can become anxious, deeply lonely or depressed. “That’s the mind interpreting all this physical skin hunger as something else,” she says, “which is, ‘Nobody loves me’ or ‘I’ll never have touch again’ or ‘I hate this. I can’t stand it.’ And then you go on for long enough and enough poison accumulates to develop into something more serious like depression. Essentially, the human mind creates our own prison.”
Human beings are infinitely adaptable, however. More cynically, we have a stalwart commitment to weasel our way around the inconvenient or uncomfortable. Either way, there’s a resolute ingenuity at play.
“If you come from a non-touch culture or family,” Lee says, and you’re suddenly thrust into a world where touch is encouraged and frequent, or vice-versa, “some people will feel uncomfortable. But change is uncomfortable. And after a while, you get used to it.” Still, what happens in the body and brain when we’re touched can’t be fully reprogrammed or ignored.
Body of knowledge
Different kinds of touch are processed by different sensing systems—made up of billions of skin cells—in the body. An affective, loving caress is sent to one part of the brain and an aggressive grope to another. “Tactile inputs, pressure, temperature, humidity, slipperiness, all of these things are mediated by different kinds of skin cells,” says Benjamin Tee, president’s assistant professor of materials science at the National University of Singapore. “And it really is a concert. Imagine an orchestra. You need an orchestra of different cells that gives you this ability to sense objects and the physical world.”
“What happens after the COVID-19 pandemic? We have to come up with better ways of communicating with each other across distances”
A ‘good’ touch can trigger a cascading release of oxytocin, the love hormone. Large swathes of our brain are dedicated to making sense of what a touch might mean and how you should feel about it. A touch might light up the temporal sulcus, its hub for social perception, or the orbitofrontal cortex, which is responsible for feelings of reward and compassion. Another touch could activate the deeply buried insula region, which links sense to emotion. “People say this area is important to be yourself. That it connects your own self to your body,” says Ryo Kitada, a cognitive neuroscientist and associate professor at Nanyang Technological University.
Kitada’s research, in the past, has added evidence to the pile that anticipating a painful experience—yours or someone else’s—is significantly less difficult if someone you love holds your hand through it. He’s currently working on a hypothesis that human skin, in terms of temperature and softness, is the most pleasant surface to the touch. “It all comes back to how we can manage our social structures. It highlights the importance of touch with your relatives,” he says. “And now? I don’t know. What happens after the COVID-19 pandemic? We have to come up with better ways of communicating with each other across distances. And I think the next frontier should be touch.”
Even before 2020 became the year of conscious touch, there were people who were thinking deeply about the sense and its applications. Tee and his NUS team are developing electronic skin technology that tries to replicate human skin’s “elegant sophistication”, in his words. “It’s just something that we use without much thinking about it,” Tee says of human touch. “And the reason is because it’s such a well-designed system. It just works, all the time, in the background efficiently.”
Though e-skin could one day make prosthetic limbs as subtle and sensitive as human ones, the current model already gives robots an unprecedented level of fine motor control. It processes sensory information like shape, texture and hardness 10 times faster than the blinking of an eye. The e-skin can also currently recognise about 30 unique textures, learning from the team’s painstakingly crafted algorithms.
Despite a comparatively slow learning time, e-skin goes further than human ability. “To know a surface, humans need to slide over it to activate the tiny vibrations,” Tee says. “But with our system, we can get an image of the surface from just a light touch, immediately, and classify it. That’s something beyond what humans can do. In some sense, we are trying to build super-skins.”
When top disease experts like Dr Anthony Fauci have publicly and repeatedly disavowed banal gestures like the handshake as bioweapons in their own right, continuing to spur progress towards this kind of artificial touch intelligence will be vital. Getting an artificial system to a state of true haptic intelligence, where it both senses and acts in response to that sensation, is still “five or 10 years off”, according to Tee.
Fortunately for those of us who rely on touch to signal safety and attachment (that is, all of us), it doesn’t have to be a ritual performed by two or more people. “Rather than look at it as a curse,” says Lee of the pandemic, “take this time to fall deeper in love with yourself.” We self-caress—smoothing the hair, rubbing the neck, massaging the temples—constantly and reflexively throughout the day. Last year dragged the concept of touching each other to the forefront of our consciousness. It may well be worth learning to be more aware of the moments we touch ourselves, too.
And there are other ways to maintain our bonds with one another while we wait for touch technology to catch up to the quality of our humanity. We’re not just evolved primates, after all. We groom each other, yes, but we also derive joy and connection from other kinds of interactions. Laughing together, sharing stories and dancing are all things that can be done easily while one-metre apart.
And perhaps a gesture of comfort doesn’t have to be a gesture at all. Sometimes, mundane and unconscious presence is enough. If someone is just there for you, not being able to touch them isn’t so much a one-metre abyss as it is a space primed to be collapsed by love and trust. It might not be skin brushing up against skin, but it’s enough for now.