What a crying child really wants is a loving touch of a parent. A hug, a kiss, a comfy and comforting lap.
Human beings are wired to find touch not just pleasurable but fundamentally healthful and nourishing, according to scientists interviewed by The Columbian. (When that touch is wanted and consensual, of course.) That wiring doesn’t change just because a new threat — a new disease, COVID-19 — has arrived. Just the opposite: The threat increases our hunger for comfort and community.
“Human contact is so important,” said Larry Sherman, a neuroscientist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. “If you’re in a stressful situation, like being in the middle of a pandemic, a hug is a great thing.”
But being in the middle of a pandemic means avoiding physical contact with friends and loved ones who don’t happen to live inside your bubble. Avoiding intergenerational hugs and kisses is an especially sad aspect of pandemic isolation. Just ask your grandmother.
“It’s very painful for older people not to be able to hug their grandchildren,” said professor Tiffany Field of the University of Miami School of Medicine’s Touch Research Institute. Field said she’s worried about the effects of touch deprivation on both older and younger people, and hopes those who are living safely within the same bubble will put down their phones, reach out and touch one another.
The Touch Research Institute recently conducted a community survey in which 60 percent of respondents described themselves as touch deprived, Field said, and just 21 percent of parents said they touch their children frequently.
“Even if people are together, there’s not very much touch going on inside of homes,” Field said. “I suspect what’s happening is they’re on their cellphones and computers.”
What’s happening under the skin when you hug, shake hands or enjoy a massage?
Pressure receptors in the skin get stimulated and two key areas of the brain get busy, Sherman said: the limbic system, which is the central processor of memory and emotion, and the orbitofrontal cortex, which manages pleasure- and reward-seeking behaviors. There’s a big release of oxytocin, the so-called “cuddle hormone,” and also of endorphins, the same pleasurable neurochemicals that reinforce behaviors like eating and drinking, making love and nurturing children.
“Serotonin gets turned on,” Field said. “That’s the body’s natural antidepressant, anti-pain neurotransmitter.”
The nervous system, heart rate and blood pressure all calm down, and so does cortisol, “the culprit stress hormone,” she said. Cortisol is known to weaken the immune system, and reducing it helps the “natural killer cells” that fight cancer and invaders like viruses, Field said.
Hugging “is such an intensive greeting, it really sets off an emotional cascade,” Sherman said. “The pressing of skin on skin, the prolonged interaction — it sets off all the things that relieve stress and promote bonding.”
When monkeys groom one another and their young with stroking and patting motions, Sherman said, it’s really less about nit picking than emotional bonding.
“Grooming is something some primates do 20 percent of the time, and that’s 19 percent more than they actually need to just to deal with hygiene,” Sherman said.
Touch is central to establishing bonds between parents and children, he said.
“If you’re in a household where you’re separated from one of your parents (because of the pandemic or any other reason), that can be troublesome,” Sherman said.
In recent years, the field of childhood development has become concerned with “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) — early traumas that can tilt children toward lifelong health and coping problems.
Everybody’s got some ACEs, but if your early life is loaded up with lots of them — traumas like parental divorce, violence or drug addiction at home, emotional abuse, a parent in jail — the long-term effects may be profound.
“When you are living with lots of stress, when there’s lots of cortisol in your system, it alters the way your brain gets wired,” Sherman said.
A paper published this summer in The Journal of Pediatrics suggests that children’s increased exposure to all kinds of pandemic stresses — family conflict, parental anxiety, hunger, isolation — may intensify the overall effect of the ACEs they already face.
“Taken together, the indirect effects of the pandemic response could exacerbate each of the common ACEs in children’s lives,” wrote Lee M. Sanders, a health-policy expert and associate professor of pediatrics at Stanford University.
Field said she’s worried about aggressiveness in children who don’t get touched. A comparative playground study of children in Miami and in France found the French children being cuddled and hugged more than their American peers; the American children showed far more verbal and physical aggressiveness on the playground, she said. Animals studies have found similar things, she said.
Neither scientist is worried that the pandemic will condition children to recoil permanently from others or unlearn their taste for touch. People are highly adaptable during times of crises, Sherman said. Teaching kids to take temporary precautions (like distancing and face masks) when there’s a threat, and then stopping when the threat has passed, can only help them build resiliency and face the future with courage, he said.
Field and Sherman both said they’re more worried about another aspect of children’s lives that predated the pandemic but has grown astronomically this year: screen time.
“I’m more concerned about a really dramatic shift in the way children communicate with each other,” Sherman said. “Even when they have face to face contact, it’s in this very strange, supervised, 2-D world. Spending hours per day trying to interact with other human beings on screen is not normal.”
“We were already moving in that direction,” Field said. “COVID has just exacerbated it.”
Sherman hopes family members living together will share hugs and loving touches liberally: “It’s really important to be hugging and touching, doing all those normal things — maybe even more so now.”