At first, the advice to stop shaking hands didn’t seem like a big deal and was met with elbow bumps and a snigger. Pressing pause on a social custom that reeks of boys’ club business to fight the pandemic seemed sensible and innocuous. Now there are calls to discard the practice for good to dispel other germ-borne diseases such as flu.

Handshakes originated as a gesture of peace, a physical demonstration that you weren’t carrying weapons. Nowadays corporate weapons are more subtle and, arguably, more lethal. While a hearty handshake may seem old fashioned there are concerns each move away from social contact is creating a new monster. In a country famously reticent of “pda”, can we really afford to connect even less?

We only have five senses (well Bruce Willis may say six) with skin being the largest organ on the human body. It alerts our brains to danger, informs us how to navigate space and directs the use of our motor skills. Touch sends signals to our brain about temperature, pain and vibration as well as being integral to communication. One must shake hands firmly lest a weak, sweaty grip creates the wrong impression. The sense of touch has so many jobs to do it makes Peppa Pig’s Miss Rabbit look like a wastrel and a layabout.

No one denies the importance of touch. We know how beneficial skin-to-skin contact is after a baby is born both physically and emotionally. Equally touch brings enormous recuperative benefits to patients in hospital as well as easing those in the final hours of life. Studies show that touch increases our immune responses, calms our heart rate and blood pressure, stimulates the pathways that release oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin and, of course, reduces the impact of social exclusion and isolation. There are hundreds of studies exploring the impact of touch from massage therapy for breast cancer to documenting increased confidence after a friendly pat on the head.

The art world also contributes fascinating insights after studies investigated why people are so eager to touch art works. Is it just our perverse desire to do the forbidden or do our brains need sensory input to truly appreciate the art? Museums report that visitors just can’t resist patting the bums of naked statues and who can blame them? Certainly, residue from our fingers can damage art but that is not the only reason for our “look, don’t touch” culture. Renaissance art in churches was hung ostensibly to educate the illiterate but they were also meant to intimidate and instil righteous fear so they would be placed in high and inaccessible places.

Human instinct compels us to explore, just ask Captain Kirk. From the youngest age, we observe babies making sense of their world by putting everything in their mouth yet we abandon this style of exploration as we get older. A natural progression or one imposed by faulty societal norms? Processing information using tactile perception is called bodily-kinesthetic intelligence. Museums have recognised its importance, curating sensory-friendly exhibits that invite us to smell, touch and interact with the displays. A move welcomed by those who previously felt marginalised. Art has always been about more than just sight but just as we are waking up to this truth lockdown has cut us off.

Now those marble butts seem to crawl with microscopic menaces and the justifiable fear of a global pandemic has made us more wary of skin contact than a Puritan at a rave.

The pandemic has led to profound loss, from loved ones to freedoms that, quite rightly, we took for granted. Perhaps, the biggest impact comes from losing so many connections via touch. Those in the know call this “touch starvation” and its long-term effects include depression, insomnia and anxiety.

Touch is a particularly pertinent subject as I am immersed in a family with a range of sensory processing issues due to the prevalence of ADHD and Autism in our genes. Sensory issues can range from those who seek sensory input such as feeling soothed by a weighted blanket to sensory avoidance when our senses feel over-stimulated and everyday sounds and textures can be physically painful. A relatable example (well to anyone over the age of 45) would be the sound of nails scraping a blackboard. Research exploring tactile sensitivity is in its infancy but, interestingly, the solution seems to be touch therapy. So coming from a family of resolute non-huggers touch prohibition in a time of corona may seem a silver lining. But what we crave, or in this case don’t crave, is not always what is good for us. Perhaps those that cringe when auntie plants her lips on our cheek shouldn’t be so quick to embrace the current status quo.

Of course, the pandemic is not the only culprit responsible for our growing aversion to touch. Increased technology has reduced social contact as well as growing fears of being accused of inappropriate behaviour. This growing disconnection may well trigger a tsunami of mental health problems. So if we consign the handshake to room 101, perhaps we should replace it with hugs guru-style.

All this and we didn’t even talk about sex.

 

Copyright by Sonia D. Picker


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