It's long been scientifically proven that babies require tactile affection to flourish both mentally and physically. Whilst bonding skills learned in early years set a template for future relationships, the consequences of insufficient human touch run even deeper than our ability to develop empathy and trust. As tragically improbable as it might sound, research into orphanages with high mortality rates discovered that even when provided adequate nutrition, babies starved of physical contact such as nuzzling, holding and cuddling actually stopped growing properly and eventually died.
In a study of some 100 subjects over four years, scientists at the University of British Columbia and BC Children’s Hospital Research Institute found the very DNA of youngsters to be altered by the levels of affection and physical attention they received from five weeks of age. By studying age-related chromosomal markers, the scientists were able to compare and contrast the biochemical development of their snot-nosed little candidates. In effect, the very cells of the highly nurtured children were more mature, suggesting associated benefits to growth and development.
As a species whose very genetic make-up thrives on physical touch, it's ironic we've found more and more ways to isolate ourselves from one another, whether that's the headphones we wear on the bus or the screens we stare into on the train. In an age where technology allows us to stay more connected than ever before, anxiety, stress, depression and feelings of loneliness are at an all time high. Are we too preoccupied trying to poke someone we Likeon facebook to hold the people we love?
It's not just babies who need affection - medical studies confirm the health benefits of physical touch continue throughout our lives. Hugs can increase our self esteem, reminding us at a cellular level of the comfort and validation we received when held as children. Next time a pop-up ad snidely implies you're fat or old or have bad skin, a hug may just remind you of your self-worth. Meanwhile, that exchange of human affection builds trust, empathy and feelings of safety and security. Hugs are a mutually beneficial investment in a relationship. Further research shows those relationships which feature them tend to be stronger and last longer.
They further alleviate stress by encouraging the release of oxytocin, a “love hormone” which promotes attachment and is present through pregnancy, birth and in subsequent early bonding. Secreted primarily in the brain's hypothalamus then released into the bloodstream via the pituitary gland, Oxytocin influences mood, behaviour and physiology, alleviating social anxiety and producing those feelings of trust. It can induce a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol, so a friendly embrace before a best man speech might just see you finish without fainting or diving out a window.
Even a leg squeeze or reassuring hand on a shoulder can improve your physical health, with the sensation of touch encouraging pressure receptors called Pacinian corpuscles to send signals to the vagus nerve in the brain, an area responsible for lowering blood pressure and promoting better heart health.
As stress effectively weakens our immune systems, increased human touch can be a potential remedy, rather than catalyst for the spread of viruses. Research of a pool of over 400 candidates showed that people with greater social support and more frequent hugs were less likely to catch a virus after exposure. Maybe if the characters on The Walking Deadspent a bit more time cuddling the zombies and a bit less time bashing their brains in with hockey sticks, everything would be ok....
My partner and I, exhausted at the end of most days from the demands of work and toddlers are partial to a relaxing, but not particularly intimacy-inducing episode or three. We've toyed with the idea of sustained, tantric hugs whilst binge-watching but the physical logistics of it would require a computer screen either end of the bed, so we stick to sitting side-by-side and holding hands which is still nice. The only time Gemma breaks contact is to cover her eyes during a scary part. And what happens? Someone usually dies gruesomely! PROOF the boffins are right.
Zombie apocalypses notwithstanding, human contact clearly makes us happier, healthier and better adjusted. Propercontact that is. Not just saying “thank you” to the Amazondelivery guy but prolonged, physical touch with another human. Still not convinced? Answer me this. Before we all flew in planes and drove around in the little isolation pods we call cars, back when piggy-backs were the only reliable mode of transport, how many nuclear wars were there?? That's right, ZEROprobably.
According to the scientists, the magic figure is 20. That's the number of seconds you should hold a hug to get that proper heart rate-lowering, anti-stress, bond-forming chemical kick. Now that might seem a lot in our ADHD-inducing modern world (and would certainly lead to some concerned “everything ok hun??” looks if unleashed on a mate unannounced) but if the payoff could be a longer life and greater sense of wellbeing, it's certainly worth a shot. Even aiming for the expert-advised minimum of 8 daily hugs (160 seconds or nearly 3 minutes invested) is totally viable and who knows what the impact might be on the UK's 15.4 million working days lost to work-related stress, depression or anxiety last year. Of course if you're reading this while sipping Sangria on your sunny Spanish terrace, you might scoff at the necessity but still, it can't hurt... unless you're doing it very wrong.
We're inherently social creatures and an expanding body of research confirms affection, cuddling, friendly touch, family visits, hand holding etc. improve not just our individual health and life expectancy, but the safety, security and cooperation of the societies we form, so HUG you idiots!
Just remember to get consent, either explicit or implied before you cling onto someone like a stag beetle or you might inadvertently counteract those benefits with a rather stressful stay inside.