Joe Biden’s explanatory video in response to stories of his sometimes overly exuberant physicality was well-played. He seemed relaxed, sincere, unscripted and, above all, not supine.
The matter of physical touch is, well, touchy. One person’s affectionate hug is another’s creepy, unwelcome invasion of personal space. Biden does seem to have stepped over the line at times. Free advice: Inhaling the aroma of a woman’s hair and kissing her head when you’ve just met is not recommended. But most of the time, it seems that Biden’s hugs, shoulder rubs and Eskimo kisses were well-received. He is physically demonstrative with women, but also with other men and particularly with children.
“Social norms are changing,” Biden acknowledged, assuring viewers that he “gets it.” But before we close the books with the #MeToo-inflected conclusion that touching is “problematic,” we might want to consider some other evidence currently in the news that suggests we aren’t touching enough.
There is a wealth of psychological literature showing that skin-to-skin contact is critical for the normal mental development of human infants. All but the most fragile preterm babies do better when cuddled in their mothers’ arms than in incubators. Studies have shown that babies in Romanian orphanages who were provided with nutrition and clean diapers but were rarely held or spoken to grew into emotionally stunted children.
In childhood, too, physical contact is critical for children’s well-being. When fathers roughhouse with their young children, the kids are better able to regulate their emotions, including aggression, and are found to be more popular with their peers than children who lack this kind of play.
Our need to touch and be touched never subsides. Chronic loneliness has been found to be as harmful to health as smoking. Studies have found that hugs don’t just relieve stress and release oxytocin (the bonding hormone); they also can reduce susceptibility to the common cold, lower blood pressure and diminish pain. And when humans pet animals, both experience physiological benefits. Even just holding hands with a loved one while enduring a painful medical procedure has been found to make the experience more bearable. When close couples hold hands, their heart rates and brain waves tend to synchronize.
Most of us just aren’t designed to live the kind of solitary lives that excessive entanglement with technology is encouraging. We are social and also tactile creatures. Our recent social trend away from marriage and toward silicone companions is the equivalent of taking people away from a roaring fireplace surrounded by loved ones and placing them in solitary steel and glass pods. Let’s not lose sight of our affective natures even as we police the excessively handsy amongst us.