Before the COVID19 crisis, people used to touch much more. Touching is simple, fulfilling and intuitive. We can achieve almost everything without touching. So what do we miss? Read more here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
- We need touch, at least from the intimate people
- Invasion of personal space is either dehumanizing or intimate
- Large distance reduces empathy, and we are social animals
- Using certain devices (zoom, haptic,…) we can partially imitate intimacy
- We are still close to ourselves, maybe our family or pets. Maximize these resources.
Robots and remote presence
The first time I thought about the issue I was a child and the whole idea was strictly science fiction. In a world of Isaac Asimov, people hated to touch each other and robots took care of all of their needs. I was a child, and other children in my class had poor personal hygiene, so the idea appealed to me.
I could not imagine the speed of technological development. For every purpose, I am still a young man. And yet, once science fiction is now a part of our lives. Teleconferences as the main tool of working and learning from home, sport in stable asexual pairs due to the dangers of physical touch, VR sets with immersive experience…
The next wave of technological progress is possibly bringing human-like robots, haptic suits and exoskeletons, robots mapping 3D objects by touch… What are we losing in this process? Are we becoming less human, making our robots more humane?
We are closely related to primates. Primates are very social animals, that need social grooming to establish hierarchies, resolve conflicts, and take care of each other’s needs.
Touch is the first of the five senses to develop in utero and the last to go. “Long after our eyes betray us, our hands remain faithful to the world”.
Our brain evolved to analyze complex relationships of more than a hundred individuals, and that includes a lot of neurons to process touch. A new-born primate or human child needs a constant touch of the mother-like figure to survive. Multiple experiments proved this. As Aristotle put it, “even when they do not need each other’s assistance, people desire no less to live together.” We tend to live in large cities, to be close to other humans who can take care of our needs.
We are not the champions of touch: we do not have super-sensitive whiskers. Our main sensory mechanism is vision. So we can transcend our need for touch, at least as grown-ups. Moreover, we can fair OK touching our family and close partners.
Proxemics is the study of human use of space and the effects that population density has on behavior, communication, and social interaction. Personal space is the region surrounding a person which they regard as psychologically theirs. Permitting a person to enter personal space is an expression of intimacy.
When there is no choice, crowded people often imagine those intruding on their personal space as inanimate.
On the other hand, when we want to be closed to others, we can use video tricks like angling the frame and adjusting the zoom. The brain mechanism for maintaining the distance is the amygdala. Abnormal development of the amygdala may also explain why people with autism have difficulties maintaining a normal social distance to other people.
Personal distance is believed to be a late midieval discovery. As printed books became common, wealthy people needed space to read them. The same space helped them avoid some common disease. As the midieval cities grew, the wealthy started to get away from them, staying in larger and safer houses.
Social distancing, also called physical distancing, is a set of measures taken to prevent the spread of a contagious disease by maintaining a physical distance between people and reducing the number of times people come into close contact with each other.
In fact, we have been distancing from each other for a while. The statistics are interesting. The higher the annual temperature of a country, the closer was the preferred distance to strangers. Furthermore, women on average preferred to maintain greater distance with strangers. Older people preferred greater distances. This might be a result of many waves of influenza humans survived, as elder adults and pregnant women tend to be more susceptible to infections.
Social networking and lack of empathy
As we distance from others, we have less empathy for them. For example, power distance blocks empathy. This is biologically reasonable, as primates tend to cooperate with individuals of their family and compete with individuals from other families. Within the primate family, the alpha male and his captains need to maintain competitive edge against low ranked males. We are not so different from primates, and our empathy is correlated with distance.
One of the interesting reactions to social networks is depression. As we are distant from individuals posting photos, we do not identify with their achievement and feel competitively inadequate.
Physical distance, not social distance
So, to feel good and empathic, we can trick the brain to think that physical distance is not social distance. What tools do we have?
First of all, our vulnerability makes us closer to other human beings who are equally susceptible to suffering. This is a profoundly spiritual way to relate deeper with other humans.
Then we have the technology. When we zoom the camera on someone’s face and angle the frame, we feel like we are looking at a close human face. Haptic technology, shapeshifting materials or simply holding a hot beverage may fool us into feeling the touch of another human-being.
We also have the real thing: we have living beings we are intimate with. Our family, our close friends, or even our pets. Pets are great in reducing stress and loneliness.
It is also possible to use media as a way to make us feel more solidarity. I quote:
” 1. Awakening to the fact of our mortality, thereby fueling a greater appreciation of life.
2. Awakening to our fundamental solidarity and interdependence as local neighbors and global citizens.
3. Awakening to our fundamental connectedness to the (non-human) natural world”
Certain assistance we tend to experience from others can be self-administered. It is probably less effective than the real thing. For example, we are significantly less sensitive to our own touch than the touch of another person due to feedback mechanisms in our brain.
- Positive self-talk. We would love someone to soothe us, yet we can do it to ourselves.
- Gratitude. Practice self-gratitude, acknowledging inner strengths.
- Dancing. One of the ways we can “safely” touch others is via dance. But we can dance with ourselves, in front of a mirror. Turn on music, and sing along.
- Watch or visualize human touch. We can let our brain fill-in the missing person.
- Take small opportunities to be good to yourself. Whatever works for you: meditation, food, hobbies. Touch things you love to touch: the fabric of cloth, food texture, or the handle of a knife.
Use video conferencing not just for work
Do not allow videoconferencing to associate with work. Play with others, immerse in virtual worlds, have happy hours… Embrace the technology, since it is likely to stay with us.