Social Touch and Our Post-pandemic Future

The authors are neuroscientists who study the sense of touch at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Published in Fundamentals - Fundamentals August 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has not only taken the lives of millions, but also robbed us of more than a year of numerous social interactions that define us as humans. To combat the virus, we isolated ourselves from one another. We skipped visiting family, kept our children away from their grandparents, put dating on hold, and stopped going out for a drink or meal with friends. We didn’t risk hugging those outside our “bubbles.” Shaking hands with strangers? Forget it.

Of all the aspects of social isolation, an easily overlooked but insidious one involves the loss of everyday physical touch. Human beings depend critically on what scientists refer to as “social” or “affective” touch. If we can’t interact by touching, we are missing out on something essential for humans.

Humans maintain large and complex social networks — in part through the sense of touch — that are critical for our success as a species. Recent work from the lab of psychologist Lauri Nummenmaa has shown that the extent of personal touch that we allow from another person in our community is strongly associated with the emotional bond we have with that person.1,2

Expressions of familiarity and goodwill based on touch arguably carry more weight than purely verbal ones.

A role for touch in maintaining social networks is not restricted to humans, but rather is widely observed among mammals, including chimpanzees,3 monkeys,4 bats,5 rats6 and prairie voles.6 Of these, nonhuman primates are thought to spend the most time interacting via “social grooming.”4,7,8 As primatologist Frans de Waal has noted,9 grooming goes beyond the purpose of hygiene: It establishes bonding10 and maintains relationships. The larger the size of a community,11 the more time a member spends grooming others. In female baboons, lower stress levels are associated with having more grooming partners and more frequent social grooming.12 Primates13 and prairie voles14 use grooming as a way to console others after a stressful event.

Touch facilitates social connections in part by tapping into the brain’s emotional pathways. The skin has been described as a “social organ,” and has receptor cells that tell the brain about pleasurable social touch.15,16 Experiences of touch, with partners or strangers, feel rewarding because they affect the brain’s emotional structures and alter its state via the release of chemicals such as oxytocin,17 dopamine,18,19 serotonin20 and endorphins.16 Alas, the touches we give ourselves don’t cut it, because we perceive self-touch differently and as less pleasurable than interpersonal touch.21

Social touch also plays an essential role in development of the young. Touch is thought to be the first sensory modality to develop in the womb.22,23 Studies have shown the beneficial impact of social touch on infants. Low birthweight infants gain weight faster when they receive skin-to-skin contact from their mothers, compared with those who do not.24,25

Isolation and loss of social touch have been widespread consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, even before the pandemic, a number of groups already suffered from physical social isolation and, arguably, our society as a whole is trending in this direction. Social changes like the increasing digitization of our interactions are leading broader swaths of society toward life with fewer physical interactions. It’s perhaps not coincidental that young people often report feeling lonelier and unhappier compared with their counterparts from prior generations, despite unprecedented levels of connection via social media.26–29

Amid the loss of life and livelihood caused by COVID-19, it’s been painful to have stayed out of reach of one another. While much of the population remains unvaccinated and new variants bring uncertainty, we can nonetheless envision post-pandemic life and a new normal. Among lessons to be learned, let’s take away an awareness of the role of touch in our well-being, and let this guide us toward a more physically connected future. Fortunately, for touch, it’s the small things we do that matter.

As we pick up the pace on travel and social events, we can appreciate the value of that hug with a friend or loved one, or the incidental touch of a family member sitting next to you on the sofa. Interactions like these are easy to overlook, but add up to an essential part of life. Neglecting them takes a toll on our health. In our post-pandemic future, let’s stay in better touch with one another.