Story at a glance

  • The pandemic has limited physical interactions, and people are feeling the loss of opportunities for human touch, such as hugs.
  • A survey of people in the U.K. found that people were looking forward to being able to hug again.
  • A neuroscientist writes about how touch, specifically nerves that sense gentle touch, is important for social bonding.

A recent survey suggests that people in the U.K. are looking forward to giving hugs again. So much so that giving hugs again is ranked fourth in a list of 30 activities. Physical touch has been greatly diminished during the pandemic due to restrictions, and neuroscience is able to explain some of why that is.

Human touch is important for developing social bonds as infants. There’s that classic study of an infant rhesus monkey and its interactions with a cloth “mother” that did not provide nourishment and a robotic “mother” that did feed it. The infants spent more time with the cloth mother and were able to develop normally.

Touch remains important as adults, although less so since our development has advanced.

“As we grow older, touch plays an important role in the formation and maintenance of adult social relationships,” writes behavioral neuroscientist Susannah Walker in an opinion for The Guardian. “When distressed, we revert to our earlier experiences of touch, relying on non-verbal support such as handholding, hugs and caresses.”


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During the pandemic, the opportunities to touch and physically be with people in our social circles has been limited. “The comforting, rewarding benefits of touch are rooted in our skin, which is innervated with a variety of sensory receptors that inform us about what is happening on the surface of our body,” writes Walker.

New research is helping to understand more about what’s happening in our bodies when we engage in physical touch. For example, “researchers are now becoming increasingly interested in a subset of touch-sensitive nerves in core regions of the body, such as the back, which have only recently been discovered,” writes Walker. “This second type of sensory nerves send signals to areas of our brains that deal with emotional processing.”

These nerves respond to gentle, stroking touch and send signals to the brain that release neurochemicals like oxytocin. In this way, physical touch and its response in our body may affect social bonding.


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Published on Apr 15, 2021