The touch test

Natalie Bowling completed her PhD in Goldsmiths’ Banissy lab in 2018. She then completed an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Sussex before once more working in the Banissy lab as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow. Her work examines interoception, touch, and body representations in typical adults and mirror-sensory synaesthetes. Her broader research interests include empathy, social cognition, animacy perception and non-invasive brain stimulation techniques

Touch plays a fundamental role in our development and social relationships. Renowned neuroscientist, Saul Schanberg, argued that “touch is ten times stronger than verbal or emotional contact, and it affects damned near everything we do… We forget that touch is not only basic to our species, but the key to it”. Psychological research has demonstrated the extent to which touch can change how we behave, and how we perceive and interact with other people. A simple touch, for instance, can influence how positively we view salesmen, how much we tip a waiter, the food choices we make, and even pupil behaviour in schools.

Touch also has positive benefits for our health and wellbeing. In infants, skin-to-skin contact can promote weight-gain and reduce the length of hospital stays. Benefits carry over into adulthood, where comforting touch can reduce symptoms of pain and stress. Lower blood pressure and heart rate have been observed in participants who received hugs and held hands with a partner before a stressful event. Massage therapy is also known to reduce acute and chronic pain symptoms, and to reduce anxiety.

While prior research has identified the importance of touch in our daily lives, there are still many gaps in our understanding of touch in modern society. To tackle this, researchers in our Department have been working on a large-scale public engagement science project called the Touch Test. The study seeks to gain a contemporary insight into modern day attitudes and experiences of touch. It was developed by our team at Goldsmiths (led by Prof. Michael Banissy, Prof. Alice Gregory, and Dr Natalie Bowling), in collaboration with BBC Radio 4, the Wellcome Collection, and colleagues at UCL and University of Oxford.

The Touch Test was launched on BBC Radio 4 on 21stJanuary, and data collection ran until 30thMarch. Nearly 40,000 people worldwide have taken part in the survey, sharing their thoughts about touch with us. This has created a unique opportunity to understand the similarities and differences in our experiences of touch, across a large and diverse sample. For instance, we will be able to compare and contrast findings across different countries and within different groups, such as individuals with autism spectrum conditions or people in different professions.

The data collection period also coincided with a time of great change in our lifestyles, social interactions, and the way we think about touch: Covid-19. The Touch Test Team can therefore examine how touch attitudes and experiences might have changed as social distancing, self-isolation, and frequent hand washing became regular features in our lives.

In particular, the Touch Test team will be exploring key issues, including:

  • How our experiences of and attitudes towards touch vary by age, gender and nationality
  • How the interpersonal touch we experience relates to feelings of loneliness and mental wellbeing
  • How touch might affect the quality of our sleep
  • How our attitudes towards touch relate to other psychological traits, such as personality, attachment style, and body image
  • Attitudes towards touch in a doctor’s appointment or therapy session
  • Whether we get enough touch in our lives or are left wanting more
  • How attitudes towards and experiences of touch have changed during the Covid-19 pandemic, and how this relates to factors such as loneliness and wellbeing.

Preliminary results from these analyses and more will be appearing in a new BBC Radio 4 series, The Anatomy of Touch, in the autumn. In the meantime, learn more about this project from our collaborators at Radio 4.