Interview with Martin Grunwald

Why We Cannot Live without the Sense of Touch

Professor Martin Grunwald, an experimental psychologist and head of the Haptic Research Laboratory in Leipzig, says that the sense of touch is more important for our survival than seeing, hearing, smelling and tasting. We spoke with him about proximity and the survival of touch during a pandemic.

"It is not surprising that young people constantly attract media attention by violating the restrictions."

Getting along with physical distance

If the sense of touch is important for survival, how can we survive these times when the most we can do is touch objects and keep a physical distance from others?

There are many factors that determine how people respond to contact restrictions. A baby or toddler is usually unable to make up for the lack of physical contact, and in the worst-case scenario will become psychologically and physically ill. Young people, that is, young postpubescent adults, normally maintain vivid physical exchange within their age group. While this contact is partly motivated by partner-selection activities, it is also brought about by the scale of communication in this age range, which is normally larger. This age group of course finds it difficult to adhere to the contact restrictions. Nevertheless, there are still critical questions for anyone in this age group: how and where will they live, and with whom? When and how will they be an attractive person for others, and whom will they themselves find attractive? Having real, that is, physical contact with other people is essential to answer these questions. That is something that ultimately cannot be decided online or digitally. So, it is not surprising that it is this age group that constantly attracts media attention by violating the restrictions. For people of middle and advanced age, individual disposition determines how the lack of physical interaction is processed. If life takes place within a family or domestic partnership, then these social resources can—ideally—compensate for the general physical distance during this pandemic. However, if someone’s life is characterized by general social isolation, then there is a serious risk of physical and mental illness. This is a general effect of loneliness, and it also manifests outside times of pandemic. For social mammals like us, both extremes can become life-threatening over the long term; both the lack of contact with other people as well as the excessive closeness and lack of options for withdrawing. At the same time, the optimal situation is completely different for each person. Not everyone has the same need for physical contact. The desired intensity of physical contact as well as the length of contact differ from person to person and also between ages. That means each person must develop their own personal strategy for this special time of pandemic so that they can respond to their radically changed environment. In the most unfortunate situations, people retreat to drugs, alcohol and excessive violence. In the best situations, people exchange well-being massages or seek out similar professional services. (These can also be done wearing a mask.)
"Hugging ourselves does not lead to the same relieving response that we get when other people hug us."

Self-touch as s a measure against loneliness?

You do research on the subject of haptics. What is the difference between touching and being touched? Does self-touch produce the same effects as being touched by others?

The physical deformation of our bodily boundaries, that is, touch, is always an extreme event for us biologically and psychologically. That’s because the body has just a few milliseconds to decide whether the skin deformation is harmless or harmful toward it. We are not particularly cautious about being touched by people we trust; we expect that such touch will be appropriate. Things are different when we are touched by strangers. We cannot intrinsically be sure that the skin deformation will have a good ending. That is why being touched by people we personally trust also leads to pleasant sensations and relaxation responses, dependent on the context and situation. When we are touched by strangers, our neuron system first assesses a great deal of environmental information and the specific stimuli from the touch to see whether it represents potential danger. Only when this assessment has a good result can a touch develop positive feelings. Haptic stimuli that are applied by other people therefore trigger a large number of biological and psychological processes in the people who are touched.
These processes are completely different than if we touch ourselves. The neurons in our brain keep constant track of all the movements we make, so the brain is also informed when we touch ourselves. There are specific channels of information to the brain that are blocked when we touch ourselves, which means that there are fully different neurobiological effects than when we are touched by someone else. For example, these inhibition processes also make us unable to tickle ourselves; our brain “knows” that it is us who is doing the touching. Because the brain works like this, it also means that hugging ourselves does not lead to the same relieving response that we get when other people hug us.
"What is decisive for each form of physical interaction is the relationship between each person."

Difficulties in initiating touch

Our studies have found that men have greater difficulty than women in initiating touch, despite the fact that they seek to have this touch themselves. How do you explain these differences?

Each culture and region has specific ways of processing physical touch between people. This applies to bodily communication between the same sex as well as opposing sexes. Physical interaction is not a trivial matter, so men and women cannot help but attract awareness and more attention in this regard. What is decisive for each form of physical interaction is the relationship between each person and the context in which they find themselves. The more we trust another person and the safer we feel in the relevant situation, the more open we are to the signals for bodily interaction that the other person sends.

The Touchpad as a replacement for touch?

You do not consider the touchpad to be a replacement for touch and tactility because we are “living beings with a three-dimensional structure.” Nevertheless, can we use technology in the current circumstances to create solidarity until we can physically feel other people again?

Making use of things is always good advice. However, it should not come as a surprise if we are not completely at ease despite the technological support. Seeing and hearing others may represent a passable way to get through a difficult situation for a limited period of time. For most people, though, a critical phase begins after six months where the longing for analog, physical contact with others keeps getting bigger.
"Our need for contact with others socially will likely be greater than our fear of infection."

The "new normal" after the pandemic is over?

Let’s take a look at the future. How will our need and demand for touch develop once the pandemic is over? What will be the “new normal” for touch and tactile sensation?

Humans belong to the class of animals known as mammals. As babies and small children, we grow up in extremely intimate physical contact with our social systems. Our species needs this high frequency of contact in the first few years of life in order to survive and grow. This experience shapes us for life, and as a result, it is burned into our social and cognitive DNA. Our species has outlasted plagues and cholera in the past, and our bodily communication has not changed lastingly because of them. Our need for contact with others socially will likely be greater than our fear of infection. In my opinion, the coronavirus and other misfortunes influence the way our bodily communication behaves over the short term, though not over the long term.
Martin Grunwald

Prof. Martin Grunwald

Experimental Psychologist

Prof. Martin Grunwald holds an advanced Diploma degree in psychology from the University of Leipzig. He founded the Haptics Research Laboratory at the University of Leipzig’s Paul Flechsig Institute of Brain Research in 1996 and has led it since then.