Even though touch is a basic human need – along with sight, hearing, smell, and taste – one in four people are suffering from skin hunger. Also called touch deprivation, this genuine medical condition can undermine a person’s overall health and well-being.
Gentle touching is a natural way animals express affection, acceptance, and approval. From birth to death, all of us require daily doses of demonstrable affection or we wither and die.
This is no exaggeration. In a highly controversial experiment from the 1940s, newborn infants were separated into two groups. Half of the babies were placed in a sterile facility where their other basic needs were met – feeding, bathing, and diaper changing – but no unnecessary or affectionate human touch. The other group of babies was tested under identical circumstances but also received affectionate touching.
Not surprisingly, all of the babes in the second group were thriving after four months of complete care that included reassuring and encouraging pats and strokes.
The babies in the first group, tragically, brought the experiment to a screeching halt. At four months into the experiment, nearly half of the babies had died from skin hunger, putting a halt to the experiment. Upon examination, the malnourished babies were otherwise entirely healthy physically and doctors found no physiological reasons to explain their deaths.
The following facts about touch deprivation reveal the extent of the problem:
- Three out of every four adults agree with the statement, “Americans suffer from skin hunger”
- More Americans live alone than ever before
- One in four Americans reports not having a single person to talk to about important issues
- Loneliness among American adults has increased by 16 percent in the last decade
Research shows that patients with high levels of skin hunger are disadvantaged in several ways compared to people who report moderate or low levels:
- Less happy, more lonely
- Prone to experience depression and stress
- In general, in worse health
- Less social support and lower relationship satisfaction
- Suffer from more mood and anxiety disorders
- Experience more secondary immune disorders (those that are acquired rather than inherited genetically)
- Increased risk of alexithymia, a condition that impairs their ability to express and interpret emotion
- More likely to have a preoccupied or fearful-avoidant attachment style; less likely to form secure attachments with others in their lives
Despite the human need for soothing and affirming direct contact – a simple hug or handshake will do – our youth are being touch-deprived in school by rules that prohibit skin-to-skin interaction, doctors are being cautioned not to embrace grateful patients lest it lead to a lawsuit, and foster care workers are being given the same advice.
Since when did touching become such a touchy subject?
Francis McGlone teaches neuroscience at Liverpool John Moores University in England and is a recognized leader in the field of affective touch. He is both passionate and opinionated about the crisis of skin hunger he sees in modern western societies:
“Of course we are moving away from touch! We have demonized touch to a level at which it sparks off hysterical responses, it sparks off legislative processes, and this lack of touch is not good for mental health. We seem to have been creating a touch-averse world. It’s time to recover the social power of touch.”
McGlone heard that teachers asked children to apply bandaids themselves instead of lending a helping hand and risking a complaint.
Although touch is regarded as a single sense, it is a complex network of nerve endings with specific tasks: recognize itch, vibration, pain, pressure, texture, one dedicated to recognizing a gentle stroking touch.
Healing touch stimulates pressure receptors that transmit messages to the vagus nerve, the longest cranial nerve that reaches from the brain stem to part of the colon. The brain signals produced by lowered stress levels slow down activity nervous along the vagus system which controls both somatic (sensations felt on the skin or in the muscles) and visceral (sensations felt in the organs of the body) functions.
According to McGlone, parents who pat and hug their children in a slow, hypnotic rhythm “are writing out the script that was laid down by 30 million years of evolution. We are destined to cuddle and stroke each other at predetermined velocities.”
The principal of Marjory Stoneman Douglas in Parkland, Florida, promised “to hug each and every one” of his 3,300 students after a shooting there that made national headlines.
Juan Mann began his Free Hugs Campaign in 2006 when life dealt him a lousy card, forcing him to return from London, England to his roots in Sidney, Australia. When he arrived at the airport, there was “No one to welcome me back, no place to call home. I was a tourist in my hometown.”
Mann had never felt so lonely and alone. He needed help. So the distraught man got a marker and some cardboard and made a sign:
Holding aloft his sign as he walked slowly down the busiest pedestrian intersection in the city. After 15 minutes of people ignoring or avoiding him, a woman tapped him on his shoulder. She explained her dog had died that morning. Plus, that day also tragically marked one year after her only daughter died in an auto accident. Mann recalled how great simply hugging a stranger on the street felt:
“I got down on one knee, we put our arms around each other, and when we parted, she was smiling.”