What Happens When Humans Aren't Allowed to Touch Each Other?

We lose a lot when we can't physically touch someone. JHDT Productions/Shutterstock

One of the prevailing theories about why the handshake emerged as a form of greeting thousands of years ago was to prove neither party was carrying a weapon.

But these days, it seems moot, considering the real weapon isn't in our hands, though it might be on them.

That's a pretty compelling reason why humans need contact — handshakes, hugs and heaven forbid, kisses — is highly frowned upon during a pandemic. But what price do we pay for being physically disconnected from one another? After all, humans were designed to interlock in one way or another, like a newborn baby clinging to a finger.

As adults, physical contact "solidifies something — an introduction, a salutation, a feeling, empathy," Michelle Fiordalis writes in a New York Times essay.

These days in particular, that last quality — empathy — is especially vital. We can be isolated from another, but we have to be able to feel a sense that we're all weathering this storm together. How do we create that sense of a shared experience when we can't touch one another?

Touch conveys emotion

Some people may just have the right genes for sticking together in sickness and in health. fizkes/Shutterstock

As a recent experiment led by Berkeley professor Dacher Keltner points out, we literally make connections through our fingertips. Keltner and his colleagues put a barrier between two people. They asked one of those people to convey different emotions through a one-second touch of the other person's forearm. That other person had to guess the emotion.

Here's how Keltner describes the results:

"Given the number of emotions being considered, the odds of guessing the right emotion by chance were about eight percent. But remarkably, participants guessed compassion correctly nearly 60 percent of the time. Gratitude, anger, love, fear — they got those right more than 50 percent of the time as well."

A fundamental human need

Photo: freestocks.org/Flickr [CC by 1.0]

Touch also plays another even more pivotal role in our lives. It literally provides pain relief, something we could right about now. People are dying. Funerals for loved ones are no longer possible, never mind the hugs or hand-holding or any commiseration at all.

These days, we're starving for the most fundamental human needs: to touch and to be touched. Is a hug too much to ask?

America's top infectious disease expert thinks so.

At the onset of the pandemic, Dr. Anthony Fauci, America's top infectious disease expert, only "half seriously" suggested we may never shake hands again.

Fauci is probably right. The handshake has outlived its social usefulness. It's now more laden with potential threats than a hidden dagger could ever be. But we've already discovered other ways to physically connect with a stranger — a well-timed elbow bump, for example.

Two women doing an elbow bump.
In time, the elbow bump may become the new handshake — but we're not there yet. Linda Bestwick/Shutterstock

Because, whether it's hands, or bodies or lips, we're human Lego blocks — built to interlock. And as soon as we get the chance, we'll make up for lost time.

And if you're lucky enough to be in lockdown with someone you love, what are you waiting for?

"Most people want to feel understood and communication is the vehicle by which they transmit understanding and empathy," David Klow, a marriage and family therapist, tells PsychCentral. "Non-verbal communication can be a very powerful way to say to your partner, 'I get you.' Cuddling is a way of saying, 'I know how you feel.' It allows us to feel known by your partner in ways that words can't convey."