In August 2019, researchers from TU Dresden and the University of Oslo published a fascinating insight into touch deprivation in a paper titled, The “Longing for Interpersonal Touch Picture Questionnaire”: Development of a new measurement for touch perception.
The researchers used a new questionnaire to ascertain whether people’s wish for receiving touch matched the actual amount of touch they were receiving in their lives. With a sample of 110 students aged 18-56 at a German university, they found that 72.7% of participants weren’t receiving as much touch as they would have liked in their lives. Both men and women felt like they weren’t receiving as much touch as they would have liked. Interestingly, a correlation was found between touch deprivation and mental health issues such as depression and anxiety.
We had the pleasure of interviewing Ria Beßler, the lead researcher of the paper to find out more.
1) Please could you tell us a bit more about your research interest in touch deprivation, and why this issue is of importance?
Touch deprivation comes from the idea that touch is a crucial need in humans. It facilitates our social bonding and general wellbeing. If we don’t get enough touch, we get touch deprived, just as we can get deprived of food or water. Touch deprivation can be especially critical for the development of children. But also for grown-ups, not getting enough touch can have a huge amount of negative consequences. We wanted to get to know more about the exact point at which touch deprivation occurs. Physicians can test quite reliably whether a person hasn’t had enough to drink or eat, but it’s quite difficult to tell how much touch a person really needs and when touch deprivation is getting harmful for our physical and mental wellbeing.
2) What are some of the impacts of touch deprivation on our psychological and physical
There is a huge body of research including findings about impaired cognitive functioning, being less able to cope with stress and a variety of mental problems such as eating disorders, depression and anxiety. But there may be many more that we don’t know about just yet.
3) In your research, you found that 72.7% of participants were longing for touch. To the best of my knowledge, this is one of the first studies to calculate how many people are suffering from touch deprivation and this feels like quite a significant step towards calculating how many people in wider society might be suffering from touch deprivation. Do you intend to expand on this research in the future to identify how many people in wider society are touch deprived?
Yes, definitely. The “Longing for Interpersonal Touch Questionnaire” is just a starting point for us to understand touch deprivation and how we can measure it. As you can probably imagine, it is not an easy task to measure touch behaviour, or lack thereof. Sometimes people touch each other without being aware of it, the same problem does apply for perceiving it. Therefore touch researchers are still working on developing tools to understand interpersonal touch. Luckily, thanks to technical improvements, there are a lot of innovative possibilities to investigate interpersonal touch. Earlier studies of touch used to simply watch people’s touch behaviour or touch participants in an experimental setting - which sometimes has ethical concerns as well. That’s why researchers switched to simply asking people about their touch behaviour. We will soon be able to develop apps to track touch behaviour, or create virtual reality scenarios in which we can observe touch even better. We are already doing research using so called “stroking robots” who can stroke our participants with different kinds of surfaces, for example a smooth brush. I am sure that these techniques will evolve even further during the next few years.
And because you were asking about touch deprivation in wider society: we are also investigating intercultural differences in touch deprivation - or similarities! As our working and personal relationships are becoming more global, questions about our touch behaviour as a form of nonverbal communication are becoming even more important. There are very interesting things to discover.
4) You found a correlation between touch deprivation and psychological distress, including issues such as depression and anxiety. You also note that, “Those results are well in line with previous findings linking participants receiving touch therapy to lower depression ratings.” Can you tell us more about how touch therapies can help tackle these mental health issues?
Touch therapies can indeed have promising implications for the treatment of mental health issues, especially for autism, depression and anxiety. Stroking can lead to oxytocin release, which is great for our wellbeing, bonding with others or better coping with stress. It would be great if touch therapies would get integrated more in for example regular psychological treatment programmes.
5) At Nordic Cuddle, we’re looking to address the growing issue of touch deprivation through cuddle therapy. Do you have any advice for people suffering from touch deprivation on how they might receive more touch in their lives?
First of all, I don’t think anybody should force themselves into touch that they’re not feeling comfortable with, just for the mere amount of touch or as a forced way to escape mental health issues. If people are having problems with receiving and/or giving touch, it can be very helpful to talk to a mental health professional, for example a psychotherapist, about their problems. This can help a lot with discovering underlying reasons for why they currently can’t receive as much touch as they would like to. Every person has their unique history of touch experience and as I said before, this experience can be hidden from us because sometimes we are not processing it consciously. Getting to know one’s touch preferences and expectations can open up a great way of verbal conversation about touch and nonverbal conversation with touch. And I would also like to add from my very own personal experience, sometimes simply asking for a hug with a person you feel close with or petting your furry pet or can do wonders if you’re feeling touch deprived and lonely.
Thank you very much for your time today, we look forward to following your future research!
About Ria Beßler
Ria Beßler completed her bachelor’s degree in Psychology at TU Dresden, and is currently a Masters student in Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. She has been working in the field of touch research at Universitätsklinikum Carl Gustav Carus and the University of Oslo. Her recently published paper “The Longing for Interpersonal Touch Picture Questionnaire - Development of a new measurement for touch perception,” is tackling the problem of measuring touch deprivation. When she is not scientifically involved, she very much enjoys a good oxytocin rush by petting her cat.