I first noticed the power of touch when, ironically, I didn't have it.
I'd just come home from serving a 2-year stint in the Peace Corps, where I taught English in China.
Before I left for China, I can't say I thought much about touch. Like many Americans, I touched people close to me on what I thought was a 'normal' basis. I'd hug my mom if it had been a while since I'd seen her. I had a boyfriend who held my hand when we went out in public. I might hug a sibling if he or she showed up at the airport.
Otherwise, though I didn't think about it at the time, I was rarely touched by anyone. Oh, a stranger might brush up against me. I guess I shook hands with people I met in professional settings. I did see a doctor a few times each year, so there was the blood-pressure cuff and stethoscope procedures: deep breath in.....and out.
Then I went to China. At first, the amount of touch I saw going on was unnerving. Boys older than five held hands. Grown men held hands. Women sat on each other's laps on bus rides. Students giggled and wrapped their arms around each other's necks and whispered secrets to each other.
Said students were my students: college-level students.
I saw men walk down the street arm-in-arm. I saw parents, fathers and sons and mothers and daughters, walk together with their arms around each other's necks, holding hands, brushing fingertips across a cheek.
It was all very strange to my white, middle-class background.
Then, slowly, I started to join in. A student would take my hand, a natural thing to do with a teacher, and though my body would tense, I'd smile and go with it. We'd walk along, holding hands, maybe she would grab my forearm and rest her head against my shoulder. And in that way, we'd walk.
If the bus was overly full for a ride into town, a student might ask to sit on my lap or offer to let me sit on hers (which was laughable in the fact that I was at least six inches taller and forty-pounds heavier than most of my students). What could I do, though? There were no seats, and in China, when there are no seats, one either squishes in where one can fit or sits on someone's lap. One doesn't wait an hour for the next bus.
By the end of my two years in China, I was comfortable with a lot of touch. My Chinese mother bathed me, head to toe, and then brushed my hair and told me to go take a nap. I was 25.
In a public shower, a few older women came over to my shower head and began inspecting me, all the while scrubbing me down with their wash cloths and noting the fact that I should probably work on losing the saddle bags. Men don't like saddle bags.
Students sat on my lap. I took naps with my Chinese mother, after which time she'd lie in bed and feed me cold dumplings one-by-one with her chopsticks.
I began holding hands with the other Americans as well, all of us warming after a while to this new cultural trend. My site-mate, Erin, once slept on a stranger's shoulder for several hours on a bus ride through the Sichuan mountains. He was fine with it.
Then, I came home.
My family hugged me, of course, at the airport. But nobody petted my hair or gave me a bath or held my hand while we sat together on the car ride home.
After a while, I began to notice this absence of touch. I felt a pang for it. I don't think I noticed, in China, how much it had come to mean to me. It was just a slow transition, one I didn't particularly pay attention to. When I got home, it was a bit the same way. I didn't have a moment of thinking: nobody is touching me! But I just felt a little loneliness for something I couldn't quite put my finger on.
The years passed and then an incident opened my eyes to how much touch meant to me and how deprived I felt without it, particularly since I knew what it meant to live with it.
I was at a Walmart in Arizona. It was my second move in less than twelve-months, and I was trying hard to get through it. At the Walmart, I left my rotisserie chicken at the self-checkout stand. When I got home and realized it, I went back. I figured the chicken would be long-gone, but I had to get another one anyway. I stopped by customer service just in case.
The woman at customer service was older. When she heard about the chicken, she made it her personal mission to find that chicken. I wasn't in it for the long-haul though. I just wanted to get a chicken and get home. Dinner was waiting to be cooked. Kids were hungry. It was 115 degrees outside. I was exhausted.
Then, the Walmart employee looked at me and put her hand on my shoulder and said, "We'll find that chicken or get you a fresh one, honey. Don't you worry."
I started crying. It wasn't her words. It was the way she touched me, just like that, her small, bony hand on my shoulder, where it felt like no hand had been in a long time.
I thought, in that moment, how long has it been since someone other than my husband has touched me?
A few days ago, here in North Carolina, I went to buy gas logs for the fireplace of our new home. The woman at the shop helped me pick some out, but they were much more expensive than I'd anticipated, so I left to think about it. After consulting The Google, I went back and decided to just buy them from her. She was busy when I walked in, and I listened as she worked through a customer problem and then set down the phone. She sighed.
"This just isn't my day," she said.
I nodded. "It isn't mine, either. I can't explain what's wrong, but I just feel off."
She looked at me and got tears in her eyes and nodded her head and said, "Yes. Yes. Thank you for saying that."
She said she'd felt like crying all day and didn't know why. She said she felt off and there was no good reason for it. We agreed: it was an off day.
Maybe it was the moon?
After I decided on logs, although it made me physically uncomfortable to even think about it, I asked her if I could give her a hug.
She said yes. So I hugged her, and she squeezed me tight.
When I turned to leave, she came after me and said she'd give me a 10% discount for being military, and then she said, "And now I'm going to give you a hug!"
And she hugged me in one of those full-body bear hugs that you don't know you've been missing until you get one.
I left that shop feeling better, significantly better. I felt brighter and more connected. I walked through town with a little pep in my step.
A hug can do that.
There is a heap of evidence to suggest humans need touch and without it not only do we fail to thrive, we can actually die. In the US 100 years ago, 99% of orphaned babies died, not from lack of food or shelter, but from a condition known as 'marasmus' - or lack of touch.
This New Yorker article explains the whole theory of touch (sensory) deprivation and its link to increased cortisol levels studied in Romanian orphans who were institutionalized and lacked touch on a monumental level. Mary Carlson (of Harvard) and her husband Felton Earls studied these Romanian babies and found that the babies given more attention and touch had cortisol levels and development similar to children who weren't institutionalized. However, when the children who were given increased attention were returned to the bare-bones environment of the institution, the gains made diminished and they, too, became socially withdrawn and 'failed to respond normally to other children and adults.'
The article also explores touch in the elderly, who so often are not only lonely for companionship but also for touch. Researchers have found that it doesn't even have to be a deeply connected type of touch - like a hug from an old friend. Any touch can be physically beneficial. In a study with elderly participants, one group was given social visits and the other was given social visits with the addition of massage. The group receiving the massage 'saw emotional and cognitive benefits over and above those of the first.' Researchers report, 'Even short bursts of touch - as little as fifteen minutes in the evening, in one of her studies - not only enhance growth and weight gain in children but also lead to emotional, physical and cognitive improvements in adults.'
It's easy to think only children need touch and nurturing, but research shows that as we grow and develop, our need for touch doesn't diminish. I think it's just harder, within our social framework, to get it. According to research from Oregon State University, "The use of touch can be a powerful therapeutic tool. Yet, some older adults are touched very little or not at all and suffer from 'touch hunger.'"
I also feel that touch is more difficult as we get older because we don't, in American culture, engage enough in platonic touch. This is especially problematic, it seems, for men, but I can attest to the problem in both genders. We feel fine touching children, holding babies, putting toddlers on our shoulders, cuddling with our kids before sleep. But what about touch in our friendships?
In the US, I feel it's common to touch a spouse or a child but not a friend. It's definitely not okay to touch a stranger. It's even weird, sometimes, to touch one's doctor.
In a study from the 1960s, researchers looked at touch by country. In England, friends who sat in a cafe together touched zero times. Americans touched twice. French friends touched 110 times per hour, and Puerto Ricans logged 180 times per hour! Team America: 2. Team Puerto Rico: 180.
That is huge.
So where does that leave us, a society that touches our phones more than we touch each other?
In the absence of a significant social paradigm shift, I think it leaves us, perhaps, simply aware. In this awareness, maybe, we can make slight changes to our own behavior to engage in more physical touch with people around us. We can touch our family members more. We can offer up handshakes (I'm sick to death of people being afraid to get sick and saying they can only nod their heads or grunt upon meeting someone). We can reach out and touch someone's shoulder, like that woman did with me at Walmart, a gesture I still remember years later and am writing about now.
And we can ask.
Can I give you a hug?
It might seem weird. Someone might say no. But then again, someone might say yes, and you might find yourself in front of the dancing flames of a gas log set ($450, mind you) in a bear hug with a woman who needed it as much as you did.