Studies with premature babies and in Romanian orphanages show when infants and babies are caressed, they flourish and gain weight. But when they are touch-deprived, both their physical and mental health are severely impaired. Research also indicates that when preschool-aged kids and adolescents are touched less they become more physically and verbally aggressive towards their peers. What’s the physiology and biochemistry under the skin? And are there ways to help with this during the isolation of a pandemic?
KCRW’s Jonathan Bastian talks with Dr. Tiffany Field about the research, the science, and the wonder of human touch.
The following interview excerpts have been abbreviated and edited for clarity.
KCRW: We have this incredible experiment playing out in front of us — a year of lockdown. As someone who studies the value of touch, when this pandemic hit, did you think this period would be potentially quite harmful?
Tiffany Field: “Yes, I have a group of students who were very much aware of all the years of research on touch and they were very curious. We put together a survey, and what we found is that touch deprivation was highly correlated, highly related to anxiety symptoms, to depression symptoms, to sleep problems, to PTSD symptoms, to boredom, to loneliness. Virtually every negative scale and rating that we had on this survey was related to touch deprivation.
So that's very disconcerting, because you of course don't want people to be experiencing these psychological problems during a lockdown. And from our previous research, that suggests that their immune systems are going to be compromised. And this is at the very time when you need something like touch to keep your natural killer cells up to ward off the virus, you're seeing that there is this touch deprivation, which is going to hurt the immune function.”
Being touched less makes us more susceptible to COVID-19?
Tiffany Field: “That's right, and I don't believe that anybody really is studying this. There are somewhere around 58,000 published articles on COVID-19, and they're virtually all in the year 2019, 2020, and now 2021. But there are no articles, except our own, about touch deprivation.”