After the fall of Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu in 1989, a secret horror tumbled out before the world.

Thousands of children born during were found to have suffered shocking physical and mental distress. Their growth was badly stunted. They resorted to compulsive rocking when upset.

The culprit? Extreme touch deprivation.

Desperate to boost Romania’s workforce, Ceaușescu banned abortions and In the ensuing population explosion, a whole generation of unwanted children - were abandoned by their families and grew up in orphanages that were woefully short of caregivers.  

No other sensory input has as profound an influence on human life as touch – the first sense to develop in the foetus.

Three decades on, as a pandemic makes touch illegal and at best scarce, the world is suffering a paroxysm of touch starvation. I find myself thinking of Romania’s “lost generation”. Their story is a stark reminder of how many of us take for granted the gift of touch, the most elemental of our senses.

What might we learn about being human if we paid close attention to it?

Close up photo of a young girl caressing her mother
"The woman that I still am, 2010" from the series Mother (Prestel, 2013) by Elinor Carucci

‘A touch can change your life (or at least your nervous system)!’

The conceptualised life as a series of nervous impulses: “The sense of sight sleeps first, then the sense of taste, next the sense of smell, next that of hearing, and lastly that of touch”.

To feel touch is to be alive. We can close our eyes, plug our ears, pinch our nostrils shut. But we can’t switch off our skin, except as a consequence of (or the diktat of a dictator). 

That image isn’t just mysticism. Science agrees that touch really does hold the key to life – albeit it is a relatively new field of enquiry, so we still don’t know exactly how.

When such babies are subjected to regular body massage and passive movements of the limbs, they gain more weight than their unstimulated peers. They develop better motor skills, become more active and less prone to signs of stress, such as hiccuping. They also tend to be discharged from the hospital sooner. 

Touch is a vital tonic for adults too. It activates which is associated with feelings of motivation, reward and compassion. Loving touch releases the happy hormone oxytocin, which stimulates social bonding, emotional safety, and pain relief. Simple warm touch lowers our blood pressure and heart rate. And

Touch also helps people with Alzheimer’s relax and make emotional connections with others, and alleviates symptoms of depression.

Little wonder that touch is the muse behind what I’m sure must count as the most rapturous sentence in the history of scientific research:

Close up of a kid’s hand caressing her mother breast.
"Eden and me, 2006" from the series Mother (Prestel, 2013) by Elinor Carucci.

Touch is our primal medium of communication

While crucial to survival and good for overall health, touch is also one of the most sophisticated ways that we communicate. compassion, gratitude, anger, love, or fear – even when we can’t see the person touching us.

There’s also a sinister component in the uncanny communicative power of touch: you can manipulate people to deliver the outcomes you want, simply by exposing them to different kinds of tactile stimulations. 

For instance, showed that when a bar waitress lightly touched a patron on the forearm, the likelihood of being tipped increased – even though in France it is unusual for customers to tip bar waitresses.

Experiments have found that people are more likely to describe someone as “warmer” – more humane, friendly and trustworthy – if they have been primed by touching a hot cup or beverage before answering the question. Ask a person evaluating job applications to hold a heavy file containing a resume, and they could consider the applicant to be significantly better – possessing more gravitas – than if they are primed with a lighter file.

Photo of a young male kid laying on his father’s legs waiting for eye’s drops medicine.
"Adenoidectomy, 2007" from the series Mother (Prestel, 2013) by Elinor Carucci.

‘Touch is my medicine’

So what happens when an impulse that pervades every aspect of life is suddenly forbidden, as people across the world are experiencing right now? 

For Tracy Rush, who works as a caregiver, touch deprivation has been “brutal”. She had “no idea” how much she needed touch until she and her husband – "a snuggler” – separated a year and a half ago, she says. During the pandemic, she has found herself hitting “breaking point” two or three times a week. Rush lives with her elderly parents and is constantly worried about exposing them to infection, so she does her best to self-isolate – with terrible consequences for her mood.

There’s a reason why it’s called skin hunger. It can really feel like an aching deprivation.

“When the touch starvation sets in, anxiety and loneliness take over every inch of my mind,” Rush says. “I wrap up in blankets and hold my cat and hug myself, but nothing works. I am completely helpless.” 

Rush has found only one remedy: breaking quarantine and finding physical contact. “I cry in the lap of a friend as they stroke my hair, I snuggle up tight with someone and watch a movie.” She describes these meetings as her “secret shame”. 

But then, she adds:

Photo of three humans figures: one is giving her back toward the camera and is caressing her daughter face. At the center, the grandmother hugging the granddaughter
"My mother wants me to forgive my daughter, 2016" from the series Midlife (Monacelli, 2019) by Elinor Carucci

Touch is about power

The universal lament over touch deprivation brought on by the pandemic may lead us to assume that nourishment by touch was the birthright of all humans before a virus came along to spoil it for us. 

That’s far from the truth.

The fact is that touch has always been about power, too. Like food or medicine, it isn’t equally distributed in society. 

The potential for violence contained in touch has made some parts of society “touch phobic”, says neuroscientist David Linden. For another vast section, the freedom to touch and be touched with dignity is akin to winning a lottery.

In my country India, for example, that lottery is called the caste system. If you are born into a lower caste, a status you’d share with menstruating women. Conversely, as I’ve written before, They have no way to avoid touch, even if doing so can mean the difference between living and dying.

Photo of two human figures, one man and a woman, hugging eachother on a red couch.
Photo of two human figures, a woman and her daughter hugging each other.
On the left "Eran and I, 2013", on the right "Mother and daughter, 2016" from the series Midlife (Monacelli, 2019) by Elinor Carucci.

In the US, where the Trump administration’s zero-tolerance policy towards undocumented migrants was implemented in 2018, breastfeeding mothers were torn away from their babies at the US border. echoing the plight of children in Romania’s orphanages.

Susie Orbach, a psychoanalyst, says the pandemic has given us an opportunity to grapple with these complex issues around touch – to Perhaps we need to learn to cope better with the that so much of touch starvation entails. 

And what better place to start than by consulting those with years of experience of touch deprivation, long predating the novel coronavirus?

People living with disabilities are one such source of rich but neglected wisdom. Imani Barbarin, a disability representation and inclusion activist with cerebral palsy, tweeted last month that abled people Barbarin was referring to the fact that way before touch starvation became a buzzword, it was an everyday reality for people with disabilities.

As Micaela MacDougall, who has spinal muscular atrophy, wrote to me in response to my newsletter on touch: her wheelchair acts starving her of even simple handshakes. "I also don’t have the physical strength to push people away if they touch me when I don’t want them to," she added.

What can people who didn’t need a pandemic to appreciate the powers of touch teach us about rebuilding our relationship with it? 

That’s what I will explore next in this series.

Photo of three human figures laying on a red couch.
"Three generations, 2016" from the series Midlife (Monacelli, 2019) by Elinor Carucci.
About the images Elinor Carucci’s work focusses on intimate portrayals of family, relationships and the changing, ageing and ever-evolving human body. The journey through marriage, love, parenthood and illness is something we all might experience during our lifetimes. So her personal work reaches for a universal meaning.
Her latest book Midlife, published in the fall of 2019 by Monacelli Press, is an empathetic portrait of her experience as a woman living through everyday change (Veronica Daltri, image editor).
See more here

Dig deeper

Still life colour photograph of a rock attached to a string about to touch a bunch of matches carefully arranged. The coronavirus is reminding us that anxiety is good – as long as it doesn’t turn into panic Anxiety has been stigmatised as a disorder or disease. If we listened closely to it, we wouldn’t have chosen drinking with friends on spring break in Miami over self-isolating. Read Tanmoy’s article here