Rochelle Ackerley (CNRS Aix-Marseille University, France): Perspectives on the function of human touch and changes to touch habits during the COVID pandemic

We have gained much knowledge in recent years about the mechanisms involved in human touch, from the peripheral encoding of touch to its central interpretation. Many studies investigate positive affective touch (pleasant touch) and we know that a specific class of slowly-conducting mechanoreceptor in the skin codes such gentle, moving touch optimally. The input from these receptors, so-called C-tactile (CT) afferents, is thought to underlie the pleasant and emotional aspects of touch, such as in social and affiliative touch between friends and family. One important issue in touch, especially affective touch, is how our habits have changed during the social distancing imposed in the COVID pandemic. I will explore these ideas and provide ideas about how touch has changed and the impact of this.

Chris Dijkerman, Anouk Keizer (Utrecht University, Netherlands): Out of touch: The effect of touch deprivation on affective touch and quality of life during the COVID-19 pandemic

Interpersonal touch plays a crucial role in our social interactions and has a positive influence on mental health. The regulations related to the COVID-19 pandemic have reduced the ability to engage in interpersonal touch, which could cause touch deprivation thereby influencing our well-being. Our international online survey shows that participants reported feelings of touch deprivation which increased with duration of the COVID-19 regulations. Moreover, a higher longing for touch was associated with increased pleasantness ratings for observed affective and non-affective touch, but also with a reduced quality of life.

Ilona Croy(Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena, Germany), Agnieszka Sorokowska (University of Wroclaw, Poland): Interpersonal distance preferences, touch behaviors and country-level COVID-19 early transmission rate

The recent COVID-19 pandemic has led to “social distancing” recommendations from public health organizations, as physical closeness bears the risk of person-to-person SARS-CoV-2 transmission. Here, it was explored if interpersonal distance preferences and touch behaviors in 41 countries are valid measures of physical distancing in contacts between strangers and whether they relate to country-level variation in the transmission of SARS-CoV-2. The analysis, based on aggregated data from more than 9,000 participants, showed that variation in early transmission of SARS-CoV-2 (i.e., total number of SARS-CoV-2 cases 20 days after the 100th case) was significantly and positively related to non-affective touch behaviors between strangers, and significantly and negatively related to the preferred interpersonal distance between strangers. These findings suggest that the two measures are suitable for monitoring the extent to which recommendations on physical distance are implemented at the country-level in the context of COVID 19 outbreak. Further, they confirm that physical distancing is related to the dynamics of the COVID-19 outbreak. It seems that an adaptation of social behaviors – i.e., strict physical distancing from strangers – may result in a lower SARS-CoV-2 transmission rate.

Louise Kirsch (Institut Systèmes Intelligents et de Robotique, France), Mariana von Mohr (University College London, UK; Universidad Iberoamericana, México): Social touch deprivation during COVID-19

In this unique situation of pandemia, where most individuals experience social isolation, psychological distress and social pain are a common state. While previous work suggests that touch is essential to buffer feelings of social isolation and rejection, interpersonal touch experience has been affected due to social distancing policies to control the spread of COVID-19. Thus, we conducted an online study (N=1746) during the first lockdown period (April 2020) to: (i) examine touch experiences during COVID-19, their impact on mental health and the extent to which touch deprivation results in craving touch; and (ii) assess whether vicarious touch can reduce anxiety and feelings of loneliness. In this talk, we will present results highlighting on one hand that intimate touch deprivation during COVID-19 is associated with worse psychological well-being; and on another hand, that vicarious touch can reduce anxiety. These findings point towards the important role of touch, in times of social distancing and psychological distress.

Isobel Sigley (Loughborough University, UK): ‘It has touched us all’: Considering the social impact of touch and the COVID-19 pandemic

This talk uses the lens of touch to consider the social impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The policies of social distancing and isolation which aimed to immobilise the sense of touch as a means of curbing the spread of the virus doubled to consolidate the privilege of certain demographics. At the same time, these policies exacerbated the social disparities for those who are marginalised, oppressed, or Othered by highlighting the myriad ways in which their sense of touch could not always be restricted. Whether through immuno-compromising disabilities, front-line employment or racial attacks, underprivileged groups often had an increased risk of contracting and spreading the virus as they struggled to follow governmental guidelines. Contrastingly, wealthier, white, and able-bodied communities adapted more easily and disregarded guidance more freely. Looking at the intersections of race, gender, ableism, and class with the pandemic’s discourses around touch, I will question the claim that the coronavirus pandemic has had a universal or collective impact and that it has acted as an equalizer for society; I will evaluate whether it has truly ‘touched’ us all.

Francis McGlone (Liverpool John Moores University, UK): A C-voyage: The CLTM is not alone.

The skin is innervated by three classes of afferent c-fibres that code for itch, pain and ‘pleasure’, and although research has described the functional properties of each class, in health and disease, they have largely been studied separately, leaving questions unanswered - and unasked - regarding any overlap and/or integration of these ‘parallel pathways’. For example, itch and pain interact in an antagonistic manner, the pleasure of scratching an itch is ‘relieved’ by pain. However, the ‘new kid on the block’, the CLTM, has almost exclusively been left of out of any interpretation of itch and/or pain mechanisms, let alone their functional role and significance to skin sensory processing.

Yasemin Abra, Merle Fairhurst (Universität der Bundeswehr München, Germany), Laura Mirams (Liverpool John Moores University, UK): The effect of perceived threat from Covid on defensive space and the perceived pleasantness of interpersonal touch

With close contact being identified as one of the main sources of transmission of Covid, social distancing rules have been put in place. A fear of catching or spreading the virus may have led to a fear of close contact with others. One consequence of this could be a change in interpersonal space (IPS; the area surrounding our body in which we interact comfortably with other individuals). Greater touch deprivation during the pandemic has been reported as correlating with videos of affective and non-affective touch (CT optimal versus non optimal) as more pleasant. Here we posit a mechanism for this observation and investigate the effect of perceived threat from Covid on the boundary of defensive space, and subsequent perceived pleasantness of social touch. Here we report findings from an online experiment, in which we measured fear of COVID and how it covaries with fear of touch and an expanded boundary of personal space and the resulting variation in ratings of pleasantness of vicarious affective touch. We discuss differences between how real and perceived risk affects interpersonal space boundaries across and between our German and UK cohorts and how this changes perception of touch from a loved one within or outside of our household. These results highlight not only individual and cultural differences but how these vary as a factor of who is touching us.

Merle Fairhurst (Universität der Bundeswehr München, Germany): Longing for but also avoiding touch: a more nuanced view of our “hunger for touch” during the time of COVID

Affective touch, like a hug or a gentle caress, is how we typically initiate communicative exchanges with those we love. These forms of touch are thought to communicate these positive intents through an evolutionarily old class of nerve fibres, tuned to human, social touch; that is they are preferentially activated at skin temperature at gentle stroking velocities. However these all important C-tactile afferents and the affective system that underpins social touch may in fact govern not only approach but also avoidance behaviours. In this talk, we present interim results from the only global, longitudinal study investigating changes in touch behaviour and the impact on well-being during the COVID pandemic. We first describe the effects of social distancing during the pandemic on wellbeing as these relate to a longing for touch. We then describe how we have captured two types of behaviour, on the one hand a longing for familiar “safe” touch and avoidance of touch from a stranger and importantly how where we are touched and by whom seems to determine perceived pleasantness. We then introduce the new jpsych tool developed for the study and which is now implemented in the online experimentation platform. In a post-COVID and indeed #metoo world where touch is so often conceptualised as either “good” or “bad”, more than ever we need to better understand the way that touch drives both types of behaviour as well as the mechanisms that underpin them.

Ali Najm (Cyprus University of Technology, Cyprus): The Virtual Touch Toolkit: Promoting Self-Discovery Through Affective Touch

The “Virtual Touch Toolkit” is a central component of a newly developed smartphone application, currently operating on the Android operating system. The aim of the toolkit is to promote self-discovery by focusing on social, affective touch. The necessity of acknowledging the undervalued properties of affective touch in this day and age is more important than ever as the global pandemic of COVID-19 is provoking societal changes that are predicted to be detrimental to our mutual need for affective touch. The “Virtual Touch Toolkit” also aspires to function as a research tool on human behavior. The toolkit comprises multiple features and sets of exercises, which are designed to stimulate the user’s reward system while offering educational insights on affective touch.

Juulia Suvilehto (Linköping University, Sweden): How has cohabiting vs living alone impacted social touch during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The social behaviours we can safely engage in have changed for all during Covid-19 pandemic. With many countries imposing restrictions on gathering in person, opportunities for social touch outside of home have reduced. This impacts people differently based on their living situation: those living with others may still engage in social touch much as before, whereas those living alone have been removed from their most important sources of social touch. In this online study (n=370), we inspected social behaviours and attitudes towards social touching in a mainly Nordic sample. We report preliminary results on touch frequency and wanting touch, as well as liking different types touch depending on the relationship with the toucher and whether they’re a cohabitant or not.