COVID-19 is Making Us Touch Starved
Two months of lockdown. By now this is not anarchy but normality in the U.K, for every friend I speak to. The thought of opening up again and intermingling in crowds is as strange and frightening a concept as lockdown was at the beginning, with widespread alarm and resistance towards government plans to re-open schools on June 1st.
I feel 80% a keep-calm-and-carry-on-esque “This is fine!” in daylight, and 20% unexpected sharp grief for what normality was at 3am.
It happens when a friend makes me laugh on Zoom, and I remember this conversation would normally happen sitting in bedrooms where I could hug them. Or mid-watching the crowds roar at a live gig from 2010. A sudden remembrance of what life would be any other May, of planned and grieved for things: crowds, festivals, beer gardens, holidays.
But the biggest lockdown longing is just wanting a long hug. A kiss on the forehead. Hair-stroking. Hand-holding. Curling up to watch a David Attenborough documentary with one blanket. Joke tweets about French-kissing friends when we see them again reflect a very real and intense human need for contact, socialisation and intimacy.
We’re trying to go around like rational beings still when we’re also 20% baby monkey instinct experiencing a crisis. And it’s chirruping away with more distress every week we can’t see our friends, loved ones or extended families.
Humans are Overly-Smart Primates that (Still) Bond By Social Grooming.
Harlow’s now infamous monkey study demonstrated something startling: our rhesus monkey cousins preferred contact comfort over actual food. They would rather cling to a warm, soft monkey-shape made of terry-cloth than a monkey-shaped provider of milk. They did so for a colossal 15 hours a day, while the actual food source received just 1 to 2 hours of attention.
What does this tell us?
Firstly, this was a slap-in-the-face for attachment theory at the time. The previous consensus was that primates, including humans, bonded to their mothers for coldly practical reasons only: staying safe from predators, getting enough food.
Advice on child-rearing in the early half of the 20th century was still influenced by stuffily Victorian sentiment. It held that expressing affection to children was sentimental, should be avoided, and could actually “spoil” their development. As long as they were fed and clothed, what more could a human need?
(Harlow’s answer: Snuggles.)
Secondly, and most relevant to our current lockdown situation, it paved the way for research into the importance of human touch and contact. In the 21st century, we know that human touch is incredibly important.
As a social primate, humans are used to having small, intimate and complex groups they can communicate with and rely upon. A simple hug releases oxytocin, the bonding hormone. Oxytocin strengthens social ties, making us feel warm, safe, and fuzzy. Can we really get that over Zoom?
Human contact is vulnerability. It says: I trust you. I believe you won’t hurt me. I like being near you. I want to look after you, and I want you to look after me. I understand. I trust if I fall asleep by you, I’ll wake up okay. Simply holding hands reduces stress and strengthens the immune system. With a deadly virus on the roam, these are more vital human needs to fulfil than ever before.
If not, we risk an equally devastating epidemic of loneliness, anxiety and depression. Studies already show the hard toll of coronavirus isolation upon people’s daily mental well-being and lives.
Even in lockdown with a loving family, I still intensely miss leaning shoulders against my friends on the staircase, or picking some fluff from their hair. (Big monkey brain instinct.) I can only imagine, with wincing sympathy, how much harder this is for those experiencing lockdown entirely alone, or holed-up single surrounded by couples.
The global pandemic has forced us to see that relationships (familial, platonic, romantic) are the most important contributors to our mental well-being and happiness. Don’t forget it. When we get out of here, give your friends one very, very long hug.