Updated: Feb 4
Skin hunger, or touch deprivation as it’s more commonly known, is the unfulfilled need for receiving touch and physical contact.
Touch is the first sense that develops in the embryo and research suggests that alongside water, food and rest, we need touch and affection for our bodies to function at their best. Saul Schanberg once said that, “We forget that touch is not only basic to our species, but the key to it.”
P.N.K Heylings wrote an article in the British Medical Journal, called, ‘The No Touch Epidemic – an English Disease’. It lists a number of symptoms of skin hunger, which include:
Unusual reactions to being touched or touching others
A sense of insecurity
A reduced ability to communicate with others standing close by
Questioning the loyalties of other people.
You can explore additional impacts in our touch deprivation blog post, which looked at seven signs that a person might be suffering from touch deprivation.
While we may not be able to trace the exact roots of this touch avoidant attitude mentioned by Heyling, we know that the issue has become more pronounced given that we’re spending more time with our technology and less time engaging in person. The fact that we’re also living through a loneliness epidemic suggests that we’re not receiving the connections we desire, and this is having a knock-on impact on our mental and physical health.
In her article, ‘No hugging: are we living through a crisis of touch?’, Paula Cocozza looks at how we’re refraining from touch in western countries. From teachers refusing to apply plasters for children when they injure themselves, to doctors refraining from hugging patients when they deliver bad news, we’ve become more wary of offering touch due to stigmas that have arisen.
Yet, in her book Touch, Dr Tiffany Field writes that, “Touch therapies were the foundation of medicine in the West from the time of Hippocrates… These therapies were replaced by drugs after the advent of pharmaceuticals in the 1940s. Until the early 1950s, most patients received a massage – at least a back rub – on a daily basis in the hospital.”
It is important to emphasise the role that medicine has played in saving countless lives, but there is no reason why touch can’t be incorporated into a patient’s care, as indeed it used to be. To this extent, research from UC Berkley found that receiving a pat on the back and eye contact from a doctor, could boost survival rates of patients with complex diseases. Perhaps this is why Dr. Abraham Verghase said, “The most important innovation in medicine to come in the next 10 years: the power of the human hand.”
Jim Burke, a former Chairman and CEO at Johnson & Johnson, went as far as saying to Dr Tiffany Field that, “I think the prevention of disease will happen through touch [and] I think you are going to be able to find ways to prove that in animal and human models…I think you are going to find that there are whole sets of diseases that come from touch deprivation… I think we will develop models suggesting that we can enhance the immune system by touch. I have no doubt that people who are well-loved from birth to death have less disease. I would bet everything I own on that.”
The effects of skin hunger are profound and can include:
1. Physical violence
A study conducted in 49 similar non-industrial cultures found that levels of adult violence were higher in cultures where children didn’t receive as much physical affection. Whereas cultures with high levels of affection towards children showed no adult violence.
Dr J.H. Prescott believes that skin hunger in childhood can ultimately lead to physical aggression, and goes on to suggest that young criminals may come from abusive or neglectful parents. He postulates that, “the deprivation of body touch, contact and movement are the basic causes of a number of emotional disturbances including depressive and autistic behaviours, hyperactivity, sexual aberration, drug abuse, violence and aggression.”
2. Illness and immune disorders
Skin hunger can have a negative impact on our immune system. Dr Tiffany Field’s research has shown that pre-school children suffering touch deprivation as a result of being separated away from their mothers were ill more often. They suffered from upper respiratory infections, constipation and diarrhoea.
Conversely, research from Carnegie Mellon University led by Sheldon Cohen showed that hugs play an important role in helping to prevent people from becoming ill. The research showed that more frequent hugs helped protect from an increased risk of infection that’s linked to stress and when illness symptoms did occur, they were less severe. Sheldon Cohen explained that, “Those who receive more hugs are somewhat more protected from infection."
3. Cardiovascular disease
Dr Tiffany Field writes in Touch, that a lack of contact with other people can exacerbate cardiovascular disease. In the Framingham Cardiovascular Study, married couples were shown to live longer than single or widowed people, which implies that physical contact and touch can prolong lives.
Other studies suggest that divorced men have a two to six time’s greater chance of dying from leading causes of death (i.e. heart disease, stroke and automobile accidents) than married men. Field suggests that touch might play a critical role for married men’s health as it helps lower stress and improves alertness and immune function.
Robert Waldinger’s fantastic TED talk is worth a watch as it explains in detail how divorced and lonely men fare worse in regards to their health than married men, based on one of the longest running studies in the world on the topic.
4. Sleep issues
Skin hunger can adversely affect sleep. In one study, children who were separated from their parents for two to twenty weeks had sleep disturbances, which continued even after being reunited with their parents.
Anecdotal evidence also suggests better sleep for adults after a massage or cuddle therapy session.
5. Mental health issues
Kory Floyd conducted a study with 509 adults at the University of Arizona, which showed that people had a higher chance of experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression when they suffered from skin hunger.
Whereas Dr Tiffany Field notes that massage therapy can reduce depression and that a meta-analysis of 17 studies goes as far as suggesting that depression can even be alleviated by receiving massage therapy. This knowledge can be particularly useful given the growing mental health crisis, yet this information isn’t widely known or discussed.
6. Growth retardation
Children who are deprived of tactile stimulation may experience developmental delays. Children in Eastern European orphanages where touch was in short supply showed delayed cognitive development, growth, attachment issues and a higher prevalence of serious infections.
7. Lower self-esteem
Research from Narissra Punyanunt-Carter and Jason Wrench in the journal Human Communication, found that skin hunger can lower self-esteem. Whereas receiving touch can help to build self-esteem and also has an impact on the way people look at themselves and communicate.
Being deprived of affection has a number of negative impacts on our overall wellbeing. This includes a link between affection deprivation and insecurity around interpersonal attachment.
While the evidence suggests that skin hunger can be extremely damaging, discussion around this topic is limited to a few important articles in the media. The issue is therefore not being tackled and the New York Times referred to a white paper by the Luxury Institute, writing that human contact is now becoming a luxury good. Another recent article in the same paper by Courtney Maum, a futurist and trend forecaster, predicts that, “we’ll see touch-deprivation check-in spots in public wellness centers where patients can go to be embraced.”