Skin hunger: why we crave touch

Skin hunger: why we crave touch

As we are in the midst of the Easter Holiday, we can't help but feel sad. While Mother Nature is showing abundant signs of spring during a period of incredibly sunny weather, we are barely allowed to go outside other than to do what is absolutely necessary. Our gyms have been closed for almost a month now while in some countries, people aren't even allowed to exercise. Not just group exercise, but also to just jump on a bike and go for long rides. 

While couples and families get grumpy from living together in a cramped space, others face different problems: they are living without any companion whatsoever. Therefore it's not a miracle how all of a sudden, pet asylums have been able to 'clear out' their list of unwanted pets. Not just because people have more time at hand to walk a dog (just about the only thing some are allowed to do) but also because they crave the ability to touch a living being, for lack of being able to touch another human.

Somehow, just like the sense of smell is overlooked, this also is true for the sense of touch. Only when we lose it, we crave it. This craving also is called 'touch hunger' or 'skin hunger'.

Experiences and experiments on touch deprivation

Convicted murderer Peter Collins died of cancer after 32 years in a Canadian prison. In that time, he became a champion of prison rights, and made a short film called Fly in the Ointment about a prolonged period that he spent in solitary confinement:

    "Somehow, I felt [my wife’s] fingers on my leg. Shocked and excited, I opened my eyes only to realize it was a fly walking on me. I was greedy for human touch so I closed my eyes and pretended it was her fingers. I tried to stay perfectly still because I didn’t want to frighten the fly off and be left alone."

After that, Collins would bite his cheek and apply a mixture of his own blood and saliva onto his skin to attract the flies that had become his only source of living touch.

Owing to smaller household sizes, greater migration, higher media consumption, and longer life expectancy, people today are more corporally isolated than at any other time in human history. Just like we crave food when we are hungry, and crave sleep when we are tired, we crave touch when we are lonely, for to be lonely is to be vulnerable. 

When someone is out of our orbit, we do not say that we are out of sight, but out of touch; and we feel that we ought to reach out and make contact. More than a mere superfluity or indulgence, human touch is, like food and sleep, a visceral need that is increasingly being met by third parties such as massage therapists and even professional cuddlers.

We often think that smell is the most neglected of our senses. But this is even more true for touch in our Western society.

Touch is the most primitive of all senses

Touch is the most primitive of all the senses. It is the first sense to develop and is already present from just eight weeks of gestation.

In the 1940s a highly controversial experiment was conducted. Newborn infants were separated into two groups. One group was placed in a sterile facility and were provided with food, and were bathed and changed as necessary, but weren’t given any more physical touch than absolutely required for these tasks. Apart from that there was no communication with the children, but the nature of the conditions in which they were being raised ensured that they never became ill.

After four months, nearly half the infants in this sterile environment had died and the experiment was stopped. The babies were physically healthy and there were no physiological causes for their death. This experiment revealed the vital importance of affection and touch in raising healthy children, and showed that without touch children can die from the lack of affection. Meanwhile the second group of babies in the experiment had all their basic needs met and were also given affection, and as a result no babies died in that group.

With a surface area, in adults, of around two square metres, our skin is the largest organ in our body. In a controversial experiment of the 1950s, the psychologist Harry Harlow offered maternally deprived infant Rhesus macaques a choice of two inanimate surrogate mothers made of wire and wood: one bare, and the other covered in cloth. The monkeys preferred the cloth-covered surrogate to the bare one, even when the latter was holding a bottle of food.

In 1994, the neurobiologist Mary Carlson, one of Harlow’s former students, traveled to Romania with the psychiatrist Felton Earls to study the effects of severe deprivation on children who had been abandoned to understaffed orphanages. Typical findings included muteness, blank facial expressions, social withdrawal, and bizarre stereotypic movements, behaviours very similar to those of socially deprived macaques and chimpanzees.

Different habits around the world: from fondness to fear of touch

In the 1960s, a psychologist at the University of Florida, observed the behaviour of couples in coffee shops around the world. 

In the space of an hour, couples in Puerto Rico touched each other 180 times. This compared to 110 times in Paris, just twice in Florida, and not at all in London. French parents and their children touched three times more than their American counterparts.

The fear of touch in northern, Anglophone countries is deep-seated. In Victorian England and 19th century America, people took to the language of flowers, or floriography, to fly feelings that could not otherwise have flown. In a book on child-rearing, first published in 1928, the eminent and influential American psychologist John B. Watson (made famous by his Little Albert experiment) advised: 

Never hug and kiss [your children], never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight… In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be utterly ashamed at the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it.

Still today, many people flinch if the person returning their change accidentally brushes their hand. Generally speaking, the fear of touch is much greater in men. Touch is seen as soft and effeminate, and many men are keen to appear macho or at least masculine.

With women, they worry that their touch will be interpreted as a sexual advance. With other men, they fear that it will raise questions about their sexuality, or that it will feel awkward, or that it will be rejected, or that they might enjoy it a little too much. With children, with many schools now operating a strict no-touch policy, they fear that it might raise suspicions of paedophilia.

With the exception of handshakes and the occasional awkward "man hug," men must forego touch, especially warm, intimate touch, simply to reassure everyone, and perhaps also themselves, that they are decent, manly men.

As they take their first steps out of the warm embrace of their parents, boys might try to meet their need for touch through rough interaction with other boys. As they grow still older, they may, often out of sheer desperation, fumble into a relationship, putting all their physical needs into the hands of just one other ill-equipped person.

This places a lot of pressure on their partner and relationship. It also reinforces the link, and ambiguation, between touch and sex. Our libido can be assuaged with our hand in a way that our craving for touch cannot: as every sex worker knows, many people who think they are hungry for sex are in fact hungry for skin. But it is possible to separate the two, even with people to whom we feel sexually attracted.

Benefits of touching each other

Recent studies have reinforced the developmental importance of childhood physical contact, which has been associated with, among others, better performance on cognitive and physical tests, a stronger immune system, and reduced aggression. All else being equal, premature infants that receive a course of massage therapy gain considerably more weight and spend less time in the hospital.

In adults, the benefits of gentle touch include: reducing stress and protecting against future stress, lifting mood and self-esteem, strengthening interpersonal bonds, improving cognitive function, and boosting the immune system. These effects are mediated by hormonal changes, not least a lowering of the stress hormone cortisol and the release of the "love hormone" oxytocin.

The benefits of touch accrue to the giver just as much as to the receiver, for it is impossible to touch without also being touched: people who give out "free hugs" in public places are, of course, also having their hugs returned. Even self-massage reduces stress levels, which probably explains why we are constantly touching ourselves: wringing our hands, rubbing our forehead, brushing our hair and scalp, stroking our neck and upper back, and so on. Even masturbation may be more about touch and stress than about lust itself: in a survey by TimeOut New York, 39 percent of office workers admitted to masturbating in the workplace—and that’s just those who admitted to it!

Compared to children, adults are less dependent on touch, but older adults, who tend to be more alone, more vulnerable, and more self-aware, are likely to need considerably more skin contact than their younger counterparts. Therapy animals have become common in care homes, and, despite a lifetime of reservations, residents can be encouraged to hold hands or, for example, rub each other’s shoulders.

Just as we use speech and gestures to communicate, so we use touch. Words can say, "I love you," but touch can also say how and how much, and, at the same time, "I respect you," "I need you," and "thank you." For a long time, scientists somehow thought that touch served merely to emphasize a verbal message. But now it is clear even to them that touch can be the message, and that it can be more nuanced and sophisticated than either speech or gestures, and more economical to boot.

What’s more, touch is a two-way street, and a person’s reaction to our touch can tell us much more than their words ever could. Finally, while words can lie, or be taken for granted, primal touch is difficult to either ignore or discount.

How can you tell whether you’re suffering from touch deprivation?

Below are seven signs which may indicate that you’re suffering from skin hunger.

1. Aggressive behaviour 

The Touch Research Institute (TRI) conducted a study which looked at French and American adolescents. The study showed that American adolescents spent less time touching and hugging their peers than their French counterparts, and instead displayed more self-touch and more aggressive verbal and physical behaviour. Interestingly when violent adolescents were provided with massage therapy, their empathy increased and the levels of violent behaviour went down. While this may be attributed to a boost in serotonin levels, it still shows how powerful touch can be.

2. Body image issues

Touch plays a role in the formation of body image. One study of women with anorexia and bulimia showed a link between body image issues and greater touch deprivation in their childhood as well as in their current life. In contrast, another impact of touch deprivation is overeating, which may be a way of trying to fill an inner void that has come about through a lack of affection.

3. High stress levels 

When the touch receptors beneath our skin are stimulated, it can help reduce cortisol levels and blood pressure, which therefore reduces stress. Conversely, when we are experiencing stress and lack touch, we may struggle to unwind. This is one of the many reasons why alternative holistic therapies, such as cuddle therapy are growing in popularity across the world, as people seek to find ways to address their skin hunger and keep stress in check.

4. Loneliness

Common signs that you may be experiencing loneliness as a result of touch deprivation can include:

  • prolonged hot showers and baths (the warmth of which could be acting as a substitute for the warmth from another person)
  • Wrapping up in blankets
  • Clinging to pillows and even our pets

Touch deprivation can actually create a self-reinforcing cycle where we feel alienated from others and therefore begin to shy away from social contact. This could therefore lead to:

5. Mental health issues such as depression

Depression, low mood, anxiety and being withdrawn can be signs of skin hunger. In addition, those who are touch deprived may be more likely to have alexithymia, which is a condition that inhibits people from expressing and interpreting their emotions (that’s not to suggest that skin hunger causes this condition). Yet when these individuals receive healing touch, their depression levels have been shown to go down. 

6. Sexual dysfunction

High levels of anxiousness may increase tension within the body, which can lead to sexual dysfunction.

7. Fear of attachment and unsatisfying relationships

Individuals suffering from touch deprivation may feel fearful towards becoming attached, and could be less likely to form secure attachments with other people. This could be down to the fact that these individuals are self-preoccupied, can suffer from excessive shyness and are anxious about reaching out and becoming involved in long-term intimacy. 

Touch can also serve to convince and motivate, so long, of course, as it is natural and appropriate. One study found that two-thirds of women agreed to dance with a man who touched her on the arm while making the request. When the man kept his hand by his side, his success rate fell by as much as half. Students who, upon returning a library book, had their hand brushed by the librarian reported higher levels of satisfaction with the library and life in general, even if they had not been aware of having been touched. 

NBA teams with players who touched one another more, for instance, by high-fiving or hugging during a game, went on to win more games, with the more tactile players doing best. Students who had been touched by a teacher tended to participate more in class activities (shame about that strict no-touch policy), patrons who had been touched by a waitress tended to tip her more generously, shoppers who had been touched by a store greeter tended to spend more time in the store, and so on...

When you're interested in hearing more, you may want to listen to an inspiring TEDx talk about the importance of touch

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