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The Hugger’s Dilemma

Physical touch is more important for humans than you may think

By Yakin Ouederni

You probably never used to count the number of times you shake hands or give hugs during the week. Once a natural moment, saying hello or reaching out for a quick pat or nudge were instinctive gestures that have now transformed into an awkward elbow tap, a slight wave or, more commonly, nothing at all. 

With the world told to social distance since the pandemic, many have abided by strict isolating rules: wearing masks, keeping a distance of at least 2 meters away from others and engaging in no physical contact. But with a number of vaccines already being administered around the world, the pertinent question of ‘to touch or not to touch’ remains afloat. Will we be able to go back to physical contact as normal? Was this just a phase we will quickly outgrow? Experts say they hope so. 

“We are hardwired to connect with others,” said Hani Henry, associate professor of psychology and associate dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. “So I honestly think that for our mental health, we need to get out of this distancing as much as we can without compromising current protective guidelines.”

Apart from the apparent physical tolls of COVID-19 on one’s health, the virus has also unleashed a wave of mental and psychological issues that arise from isolation and distance from other humans. “It’s been proven that loneliness and isolation can precipitate or exacerbate depression or anxiety,” Henry said. “More and more people feel isolated and are feeling depressed or anxious as a result. Because we’re social animals, we thrive through connectedness and the sharing of experiences. When this gets cut off, it can affect our mood, our sense of the world, our perception of danger and our skills.”

Elbow tapping has become a common form of greeting during the pandemic

Irene Strasser, assistant professor of psychology, used the term ‘disembodiment’ to describe the consequences of our limited contact with others. It’s not even about having the contact itself but what we gain from being together — body language, gaze and unspoken expressions.

“Our interactions are more or less disembodied,” Strasser said. “We need to put more effort into communicating informally. I think of my students and the fact that after class, I click on ‘end meeting,’ and everyone is alone in front of the computers. There is no walking out of the classroom together, no going for a quick coffee.”

The issue isn’t even the physical space or the act of getting coffee but the “room” for informal conversations where we connect personally — “the kind of communication where we bond, happen to find similarities, experience empathy and sympathy, share experiences and evaluate our own feelings in relation to the other,” she said. 

As with all discussions about COVID-19, the question of touch boils down to one thing: science. Touch, Henry explained, is our first tool of communication as humans. “If you give a baby a toy, the first thing they do is to touch and feel it,” he said. 

Touch is both how we receive and express emotions. “Research has shown that we can experience a wide variety of feelings such as love, happiness and sympathy, or anger, fear and disgust through touch,” Henry added. More so, touch may lower stress hormones and release oxytocin, which enhances your sense of trust and attachment. In moments of grief, we squeeze and hold tight; in happiness, we hug; and in love, we kiss.

The importance of touch in our lives has long been a question of study. American psychologist Harry Harlow’s wire monkey experiment showed that touch plays just as important a role as basic survival needs like food and water. Harlow built two ‘mother’ monkeys, one made with wire and the other covered in soft fluffy cloth. In one of the experimental conditions, the wire mother provided baby monkeys with food, while the fluffy one did nothing. In the end, Harlow found that the babies spent more time with the fluffy mother, despite her not providing them with any sort of nutrition — just comfort. 

“That was interesting to see, and Harlow would say the need to touch, the need for tactile comfort is innate, not only human,” Strasser said, quantifying the wired monkey example with a reminder that humans are much more complicated beings and are able to find comfort in diverse interactions. 

“Physical touch is not the only way of feeling close, attached and connected,” she said. “We feel touched by someone who is just leaning in, looking at you or talking in a calming way, or for example, being touched by a particular gaze, how someone looks at you, displaying care, understanding, solidarity, warmth or when falling in love.”

Despite the known benefits of coming out of isolation and reverting to old practices of physical touch, the process of renormalizing human interaction is no easy task, and it’s likely that not everyone will hastily return to pre-COVID ways. 

And there are places like Egypt, where kissing and hugging are an integral part of the culture, where social gatherings and face-to-face interactions are not just things that come along with life but are woven into the social fabric of the country. It’s common to see those who are “indifferent” to the pandemic in Egypt — going about their daily lives, pandemic or not — and once COVID-19 is over, the country will likely see a quick change of behavior among those who are taking precautions now.

Henry, who has conducted multiple studies focusing on the collectivist nature of Egyptian society, noted that the avoidance of distancing measures is not about ignorance as much as it is about maintaining harmony — an essential element of collectivism.

“I’ve seen people take off the surgical masks to kiss each other, and then they put the mask on again,” Henry said. “Why do people do that? The self is not very independent or individualistic. And so the idea of harmony with people takes precedence over human individuality.”

Strasser agreed that physical contact in cultures like Egypt will likely not go away any time soon.

“I don’t think that kissing and hugging will disappear from any cultural context. Maybe we will continue adopting different ways of informal greetings, gatherings, and showing appreciation and connectedness for a while or within particular contexts. But most people still have their bubbles where they kiss, hug and physically touch each other,” Strasser said.

With about five major COVID vaccines being administered at the moment, including Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca and the Sinopharm Chinese vaccine, the process of returning to normal can be quicker than we expected. But what exactly does getting vaccinated mean? Does it answer the question of “to touch or not to touch” with a simple “touch?”

“Vaccination is our hope to end the pandemic and go back to normal life,” said Ahmad Moustafa, professor of biology at AUC. 

Moustafa explained that the extent of protection of vaccines is measured by efficacy. The Pfizer vaccine is measured at 95% efficacy, meaning that once you take it, you reduce your risk of contracting COVID by 95%. The long-term effects of the COVID vaccines can be predicted by looking at other viruses in history, Moustafa said. Polio has been virtually eradicated globally, with a 94% efficacy vaccine. However, the protection that vaccines offer cannot be seen unless we reach “herd immunity.”

“Herd immunity happens when a particular proportion of the population gains immunity against the virus through vaccination or previous exposure to the virus. Then the immune subpopulation will protect the smaller proportion without the immunity,” Moustafa said. 

Regarding COVID-19, the vaccination needs to reach about 80-90% of the population to achieve herd immunity. How long it will take depends on how fast the vaccine is delivered.

The best way to move forward is to learn how to deal with uncertainty, Strasser emphasized. It’s no question that social distancing is the solution to slow down the spread of the virus and actually save lives until the vaccine is widely available. “It’s a good idea in the midst of a pandemic to help flatten the curve, and if even more people could engage in more social distancing, wearing masks and other precautionary measures, it would probably be even better,” Strasser said. 

But it’s equally as important to not allow for this sudden change to drift us too far from what it means to be human. “With the current pandemic, we live in constant awareness of staying in distance to others,” she added. “ I think it’s important that we do not become alienated from each other, that we still feel solidarity and empathy and connected to ‘the other’ as human beings, even outside our bubbles of families and friends.”

So it seems our question involves an open-ended answer, one that depends on the individual, the course of events and, of course, science. For Henry, this crisis has not only made people aware of what we took for granted and the importance of connections, but has proven that human resilience is indeed remarkable. And it’s that resilience that paves the way for our return to brighter days, he said. 

“Think about the feeling you have when you go to the cinema and you are with other people who are laughing and that laughter is contagious. Or think about the happiness and excitement you feel when you watch a soccer game along with people. Think about the spirit of rekindling love, of mending the rapture that happened between people.”

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