How Covid-19 and 'touch hunger' have demonstrated just how important touch is for all of us

Most of us probably took human touch for granted until the pandemic came along with its lockdowns and social distancing ruling out hugs, handshakes and touching other people. Prof Richard Kearney is the Charles B. Seelig Chair of Philosophy at Boston College and his new book Touch: Recovering Our Most Vital Sense has just been published. Kearney recently joined Brendan O'Connor on RTÉ Radio 1 to talk about the book and the importance of human touch. 

"I did write the book before the pandemic", explained Kearney, "but I didn't finish proofing it before the pandemic so my publishers, Columbia University Press, asked me to do a preface, which I did. It sort of chimed very much with the anxieties of our time.

"As Joni Mitchell says in her great song, 'you don't know what you've got till it's gone.' When we suddenly realised we weren't allowed to touch each other anymore or shake hands or hug or anything else, basic things - even turning the same doorknobs without putting on sanitisers - we realised just how important touch has been for us and is for us and will always be for us, but we've sort of taken it for granted.

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From RTÉ News, how Adam King's 'virtual hug' lit up buildings across Ireland in January

"In the pandemic, there is this phenomenon called touch hunger, where people just reach out for each other, but they can't actually touch. One of our daughters, Sarah, got Covid. She's living in Mexico. And when she came back, she was in quarantine, and had to go into the basement of the house here in Boston. And it was like having an illegal immigrant or a Jew during in the Holocaust. We just weren't allowed meet or touch, and we were aware of just how important it is to hug people. And when it's gone, you really, really miss it."

Touch, said Kearney, has been a major part of healing. "It is absolutely fundamental how central to healing touch is. We sort of took it for granted, but now, people are coming up with these extraordinary medical facts, that touch lowers blood pressure, helps with sleep and digestion, bolsters the immunity system. Even at a basic level of our everyday being, it's so important."

It's also a vital part of how the body holds onto scars and traumas. "There's a wonderful book by a colleague of mine here in Boston, Bessel van der Kolk, called The Body Keeps the Score. A lot of work being done now in trauma is revealing just how much we have a carnal memory, that it's actually lodged in our carnal unconscious. With Freud and so on, the idea was almost that it was a mental, psychic unconscious, but actually the psyche is lodged in our body, in our bones, and in our skin, and in our blood. And a lot of the therapy that's being done now takes this very much into account, that touch is so important for releasing, and reliving, and revisiting, and ultimately redeeming these traumas.

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From The Mindful Monk, Simon Sleeman talks to psychologist Tony Bates

"I was watching the Mindful Monk podcast, with Simon Sleeman talking to Tony Bates, our great Irish psychologist. Tony was showing this young boy who was suffering from ADD, and he was healed and settled by holding a hen. As he held these two hens in his arms, this little boy, who was about six or seven, said that the hens love me. He was talking to the hens and they were settling and he was stroking their feathers. And you could see the healing, just in his face, in his whole physical allure. I think there are so many examples of this, of people being healed. Whether it's touching the earth, touching animals, touching and being touched by loved ones, family and friends, it's so important to our psychic wellbeing."

Kearney feels Covid-19 has been a wake-up call for us about the power and importance of touch. "We've been brought back into touch with touch and the need for touch", he said. "We've become aware again of our touch hunger, and the fact that we can make it into the world and we shall depart, and the first sense we develop in the womb is touch, and the last sense that goes is touch.

"Touch is always on, right? Even in sleep touch is on. We're tangible. And the only two parts of our bodies that are not tactile and tangible are our nails and our hair. So that if you're going past a beauty salon, you don't hear people screaming when they're having their nails and their hair cut, because they're not tactile or tangible, but the rest of us is. There's a huge wake-up call here - touch brings us into touch, not just with ourselves, but also with the non-human world, which we have utilised and manipulated at our peril."

You can hear the discussion in full below

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The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ