New research proposes that touch could help us bridge dividesby Steph Singer and Mirko Farina / October 24, 2018 / Leave a comment
In December 2009, the Guardian claimed that “real loneliness can do serious damage.” In January 2011, the BBC pronounced loneliness a “hidden killer” of the elderly. In December 2017, New York Times asserted that “loneliness leads to poorer physical and mental health”.
Several psychological studies have also demonstrated that loneliness is associated with an increase in the risk of premature mortality. They say that income, education, sex, and ethnicity are not protective, and that the condition is contagious.
According to a recent Community Life Survey 2017-2018 and to the Office for National Statistics (ONS) 6 per cent of adults in England—one in 20—report feeling lonely “often” or “always.” 15 per cent reported feeling lonely “sometimes” and 24 per cent “occasionally.”
Younger adults—those aged 16 to 24 years—reported feeling lonely more often than those in older age groups.
Loneliness is a widespread social issue in our country. The UK recently announced the development of a strategy to alleviate loneliness in response to the report of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness (pdf). As part of this, the prime minister requested that the Office for National Statistics (ONS) develop a national measure of loneliness.
The ONS is now working with a cross-government group of charities, academics and other stakeholders to review the measurement of loneliness. They are expected to publish their recommendations later this year.
The causes of loneliness are varied and include many different social, mental, emotional, and physical factors. But there is one potentially major cause of our loneliness epidemic that has received relatively little attention: lack of touch.
Touch is often put at the bottom of the sensory table; yet touch is an “index sense” that magnificently represents the value of human sensitivity.
According to Professor Constance Classen of Condordia University, a cultural historian specializing in the History of the Senses, touch “reveals the ways in which sensations shaped our collective cultural values.”
We experience touch every day, whether we are sitting on a seat on the tube, feeling our clothes against our skin, or holding our mug of hot tea. Touch influences what we buy, who we love and even how we heal.
Touch is one of the senses most adept at developing physical connection and intimacy with the world outside of ourselves. Newborns require a mother’s touch to thrive, and romantic relationships are cemented via touch.
Touch also allows us to build trust, intimacy, and friendship. We can neither live rich, meaningful lives nor build healthy, nurturing and supportive relationships without experiencing touch.
We use touch as a means of establishing trust and social bonds with other human beings. The sensation of touch is an ineliminable and fundamental aspect of our existence. It is “our deepest sense.”
Yet unfortunately, touch is being edged out of our lives and hyper-vigilance of boundaries is becoming the norm. As teachers and professionals working in schools, my colleagues and I are often taught to set up clear physical boundaries with our students, often motivated by fear of the repercussions of touch and contact in the classroom.
But what does this lack of positive relationships with touch mean to our young people?
Recently, I’ve been part of a project (supported by the King’s Cultural Institute) with my collaborator Steph Singer of BitterSuite. In this project we have begun investigating the relationship between loneliness and touch.
Together we created a multi-sensory musical work (“Without Touch”) in collaboration with people who experienced severe tactile deprivation in their daily lives. Without Touch was performed as part of the Arts in Mind Festival in June 2018.
The piece engaged with the skin and bodies of 45 participants of different ethnicities and of mixed socio-cultural background.
Each audience member was blindfolded and then subjected to an intense multi-sensory experience. The audio underscored the experience and interwove moving stories which told of the feeling of loneliness being connected to the intense longing to be touched.
During the audio a group of performers walked close to the audience members and using the heat from their bodies stood close to the audience. This played with the audience’s ability to “sense” or feel the closeness of a person without using touch or sight.
The intensity came from the lack of any release of physical contact—until right at the end of the performance, when all audience members were guided to form a mass, and all danced together.
After the performance, we administered a questionnaire which consisted of a series of questions, such as: what does touch tell us about where we are, who we are and where we belong? How do different cultures receive and describe touch? Does touch feel good?
Results showed that there are essentially two dimensions of touch: one, that is related to the intimate connections that touch allows us to establish with people—such as touch in love, in friendship, or in intimacy—and the other that is concerned with the closeness that touch allows us to develop with objects: for example, a car or a piece of jewellery.
Many participants after being exposed to our work also reported that touch “makes you feel better,” “validates you,” “gives you confidence,” “allows you to connect with people” and thus “makes you feel alive.”
Such responses highlighted perhaps an even more profound feature of touch: that of being a positive force for social wellness.
Nurturing social wellness
Social wellness helps people forge boundaries that encourage communication, trust and conflict management, allowing us to forge healthy relationships with others. It is thus critical to building emotional resilience.
So, what does it mean for our young people when the education system facilitates an ethos of fear and mistrust of physical contact?
We need to see this as a major future problem for our societies. Society needs to react and create positive spaces and dialogue where touch can be celebrated as a communicator, as a tool to express emotion, to build relationships and strengthen our sense of social wellness.
If we are to combat this loneliness epidemic in young people, we need to reflect on how findings like ours can be used to model positive alternative relationships with touch and physical connection.
We need to create a community of trust within the education system where teachers, teaching assistants, guest teachers and students can learn how to use touch responsibly and with care. We cannot stand by to see touch associated with fear in the time that we need positive physical connection the most.
We hope that “Without Touch” can open the conversation between education experts and young people on what role touch takes in their life, how it makes them feel, and how it can communicate their feelings.
Eventually, we’d like to see how it can be meaningfully used to overcome young people’s loneliness by developing deeper physical and emotional connections in the classroom. We’d like to see our work as a mean to assist our youngest to grow and to mature, to acquire positive qualities, interpersonal skills, and to become more self-reliant, so as to confidently enter today’s uncertain world.