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Humans are made to be touched — so what happens when we aren’t?

By | Mary Halton |

Our bodies are designed to respond to touch, and not just to sense the environment around us. We actually have a network of dedicated nerve fibers in our skin that detect and emotionally respond to the touch of another person — affirming our relationships, our social connections and even our sense of self.

So, what happens when we don’t receive that?

This was one of the first questions that neuroscientist Helena Wasling PhD considered when social distancing restrictions were introduced to curb the spread of COVID-19. Based at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, she has studied these nerves — known as C tactile or CT afferents — and their importance to our emotions for over a decade.

“What struck me very early on, in the first week of being told that we were restricted from touch,  was that people no longer knew how to behave,” she says.

Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a tactile person, touch is — or was — embedded in the social structure of our lives. From meeting a new colleague and evaluating their handshake to giving a friend a long hug when we haven’t seen them in a while, it is one of the fundamental ways we have all learned to relate to one another. “To take it away is a very big intervention,” says Wasling.

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