Recently, on a crowded bus, I found myself pressed up so close to a stranger, our knees brushed. With little effort, we could have kissed. The air in the bus was humid, traffic was nauseatingly stop-and-go, and a woman near me was belting out "Don't go chasing waterfalls" at the top of her lungs. Off-key. It was a nightmare.
There was the feeling of that man's legs against mine, so oddly comforting that I experienced a profound urge to rest my forehead on his chest. I wasn't attracted to him, but after my harried day I sure needed someone to lean on.
My loving boyfriend runs off early in the morning to work long hours as a radio reporter, while I write from home during the day and teach adult education classes two nights a week. That kind of schedule usually left us with very little time to be near each other long enough to get in more than a passing hug. And I was hardly getting much physical contact with people in other areas of my life. I might hug and kiss a friend hello, but rarely would I sit so close that our arms touched or cram into the same side of the booth at a restaurant. And I routinely used the purse-as-shield trick in crowded public spaces. That's why the encounter on the bus caught me by surprise. Things have to be pretty bad if you're on the verge of nuzzling an unsuspecting commuter, right?
It was then that my journalistic curiosity kicked in—I wanted to find out if it was actually possible to be "touch deprived." My research led me to psychologist Matthew Hertenstein, PhD, director of the Touch and Emotion Lab at DePauw University. According to Hertenstein, touch deprivation is a real thing. "Most of us, whatever our relationship status, need more human contact than we're getting," says Hertenstein. "Compared with other cultures, we live in a touch-phobic society that's made affection with anyone but loved ones taboo." (Behavioral scientists have found that about two to four feet is the accepted amount of personal space most Americans need to feel comfortable; in Latin America and the Middle East that distance can shrink to less than a foot or two.)
Yet research shows that physical affection has measurable health benefits. "Stimulating touch receptors under the skin can lower blood pressure and cortisol levels, effectively reducing stress," Hertenstein says. One study from the University of North Carolina found that women who hugged their spouse or partner frequently (even for just 20 seconds) had lower blood pressure, possibly because a warm embrace increases oxytocin levels in the brain. Over time, lower blood pressure may decrease a person's risk for heart disease.
I knew how good it felt to get a reassuring hug or squeeze, but I'd never given much thought to how my body interpreted the sensation. "A hug, pat on the back, and even a friendly handshake are processed by the reward center in the central nervous system, which is why they can have a powerful impact on the human psyche, making us feel happiness and joy," explains neurologist Shekar Raman, MD, based in Richmond, Virginia. "And it doesn't matter if you're the toucher or touchee. The more you connect with others—on even the smallest physical level—the happier you'll be."
Next: The week-long touching experiment