Humans: Wired for Touch

Human connection is at the heart of health.

Posted May 15, 2018

Jose Luis Pelaez via Getty Images
Source: Jose Luis Pelaez via Getty Images

Most of us touch a device perhaps hundreds of times in a day. How many times a day do we have physical contact with another human being?  

It seems that as society becomes more reliant on technology, our focus on meaningful human contact declines.  A recent article from the Washington Post described an elderly man in China who put himself up for adoption so that he could have human contact in his last days.  A research study on the effects of technology and relationships found that our increased use of tech has resulted in less face-to-face communication and worse quality communication. It appears we are facing a moral dilemma – but I posit that it is broader than that.  Whether or not we prioritize human connection may well determine the kind of world we leave to our children (one connected and human or disconnected and self-centered) as well as our mental and physical health.  

In this age of increasing technology and geographic spread of families, we need to emphasize human contact that is totally device free. I know that I struggle to not scream “STOP!” every time I see a family out to a meal, and they are all on their phones.  Even when it is just the kids – how will they learn to sit still at a meal and connect with others if they do not practice this skill?  If they don’t learn how to interact with others, they will be more likely to end up isolated and to suffer from anxiety and depression during their lifetime.

This topic has concerned me for some time. In fact, we have specific “no device” times in my family and that includes all meals, hikes, walks, and times when the point is to be together and connect with one another.  Study after study shows that even just the presence of mobile phones negatively impacts how we interact with each other.  Yet it was not a study that inspired this article. 

I recently visited my hometown in Kansas to see my aunt who is 90 years old and dying of cancer.  She lives with my mother, her younger sister.  It was apparent that nothing eased her pain or anxiety as much as being held. Not the Narco or the Gabapentin – what gave her the most relief was human contact, a loving touch.  I marveled at the analgesic properties of Oxytocin, also known as “the love hormone”. This is not something specific to my aunt.  Nothing strikes fear into many people like the thought of dying alone – and it’s the alone part that is scary to us.  

This reminded me of how I had been trained to practice psychology.  The message from our society was clear:  Do not touch.  Yet while studying abroad in Argentina during my clinical training, I was encouraged to greet my patients with a kiss on the cheek.  If they cried, I gave them physical comfort.  I found this approach much more in line with what humans need when they are suffering – a warm embrace and their hand held rather than a cold clinical approach. Psychology literature is replete with the power of the “therapeutic alliance” to help people heal.  But our culture says not to extend that to holding a hand.  Why?  Lawsuit fear? Perhaps it is time we all learned to be a little fearless if we truly care about providing care – whether it be to a family member or a patient.  

Humans are social beings and crave companionship. Unfortunately, it is becoming increasingly common for the elderly to end up alone, as exemplified by the man in China who sought to be adopted.  The reality is that jobs take us away from the people we love.  I am writing this having said goodbye to my aunt and mother to return to my work and travel schedule.  But the idea that a chat bot can replace a human being is wishful thinking.  Loneliness stems from a lack of both physical and social interaction that can lead to cognitive decline, depression, and sleep issues. Most human communication – about 93% – is not verbal but everything else.  What happens when we construct a world that denies us this part of being human?  

As I hear futurists paint a picture of doctors replaced by robots, I shudder.  While technology has a major role to play in improving care and efficiency in medicine, I personally never want to live in a world where humans no longer care for one another.  Why? Because like most skills, caring takes practice. If we don’t practice caring, we will become cold and disconnected from how our behavior affects others.  We already see threads of this in how people behave today versus years ago – from playing a video out loud in a public space to ignoring a dinner companion to play with a smartphone – I have noticed a lack of consideration for others that is alarming.  

This is a broad reaching piece with one essential truth at the center. When we touch other people, it reinforces our humanity.  And that has all kinds of positive benefits.  With that in mind, I am going to close my laptop and go make dinner with my husband.