When was the last time you touched someone you don’t live with? One day last March, probably; you’re not sure of the date. Did you shake hands with a new colleague at work? Did your coat brush against another commuter’s on the train? Did someone bump your elbow and mutter an apology when rushing past you on an escalator? If you’d known that was the last time you’d make contact with the body of a stranger, you’d have paid more attention.
And what about the 8.2 million British adults who live on their own? Many will have gone nearly a year now without so much as a pat on the arm from another person. Touch is the sense we take most for granted, but we miss it when it’s gone. Psychologists have a term for the feelings of deprivation and abandonment we experience: “skin hunger”.
Skin hunger is not a phrase I had come across before last year, nor a problem I ever imagined facing. I am a socially awkward, non-tactile person. I have looked on nervously as, over the past two decades, hugging has moved from being a marginal pursuit to a constant of British social life. A hug feels to me like an odd mix of the natural and the artful. It is natural because bodily contact is the first, endorphin-releasing language we learn as babies and share with other apes. But it is also artful, because it has to be silently synchronised with someone else, unlike a handshake which can be offered and accepted asynchronously.
For the truly socially inept, even a handshake can be fiddly. I used to botch them all the time, offering the wrong hand (being left-handed didn’t help) or grabbing the other person’s fingers instead of their palm. Then, just as I had completed my long internship in handshaking, it began to lose currency and I had to hastily reskill in hugging.
The best I could manage at first was a sort of bear-claw hold with my arms hanging limply down my huggee’s back. It must have been like trying to cuddle a scarecrow. I got better at it; I had to. Now I find that I really miss hugging people. I even miss those clumsy, mistimed hugs where you bang bones together and it goes on just slightly too long or not long enough. And “hunger” feels like the right word for it, in the sense that your body lets your mind know that something is up, and fills it with a gnawing sense of absence.
Aristotle considered touch the lowliest sense. He looked down on it because it was found in all animals and it relied on mere proximity, not the higher human faculties of thought, memory and imagination. But one could just as easily say that touch is the highest sense and for the same reasons. It is the basic animal instinct that lets us know we are alive in the world. It offers proof of the solidity of things other than ourselves.
Touch is our first sensation. The hand of a two-month-old human foetus will grasp when it feels something in its palm. A new-born baby will instinctively turn its head towards a touch on the cheek. All over the world, children play tag without having to learn how. The earliest forms of medicine drew on this human need to touch and be touched. The practice of healing massage emerged in India, China and southeast Asia by the third millennium BCE, before spreading west. Asclepius, the Greek god of healing, cured people by touching them. The word surgeon originally meant hand healer, from the Greek for hand (kheir) and work (ergon). In the gospels, Jesus cures the sick with the laying on of hands.
In recent years the caring professions have revived this practice of healing through touch. The tender touch of others is now known to boost the immune system, lower blood pressure, decrease the level of stress hormones such as cortisol and trigger the release of the same kind of opiates as painkilling drugs. Premature babies gain weight when rubbed lightly from head to foot. Massages reduce pain in pregnant women. People with dementia who are hugged and stroked are less prone to irritability and depression.
Our oldest myths speak of the life-giving power of touch. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus, visiting Hades, tries to hug his dead mother, Anticleia, so that they might “find a frigid comfort in shared tears”. But Anticleia is now a lifeless husk; she just slips through his arms like a hologram. Homer’s metaphor for the unbridgeable chasm between the living and the dead – a failed hug – feels newly resonant in the time of Covid. The Homeric underworld is a place of permanent lockdown, where the dead live on as unreachable, self-isolating ghosts.