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Physical touch and social distancing

We thought that Corona was gone during the summer but here we are, having a second wave. We have to social distance again and some of us have to self-quarantine. The psychological damages during the first lockdown were not well-known and most of us had difficulties to deal with it. Yet that we know what it is to love from afar it can either feel more bearable or a contrary can be perceived as a second “punishment”.

In this article, I want to discuss the power of physical touch and what it implies to be deprived of it. 

To illustrate I will present a study that was conducted by Harlow in 1958 (Harlow’s Classic Studies, 2018). At that time the study’s purpose was to discover more about the parenting bond, especially between mother and infant. 

I must warn that this kind of study is now considered as unethical and would not be reproducible.

Harlow isolated several baby monkeys directly after birth to see if they craved their mother only to be fed or if there was something more than just a primary need. Behaviorists tended to affirm that they needed their mother only for food issues and resumed the relation with the notion of stimulus-response. 

The psychologist first isolated the baby monkeys and created two false “mum-monkeys”. On one side there was a “wire mother” who provided only food and on the other side there was a “cloth mother” (see fig. 1). When released, the monkeys went to the “wire mother” to be fed and immediately after went to the “cloth mother” and stayed by it during the eighteen hours left. The searchers wanted to take the experience further and see which of the two monkey mums the baby would choose in a fearful situation.  They put the baby in the cage where the two mums were and scared it with a constructed robot that made a lot of noise. The baby monkey immediately ran to the “cloth mother” to seek comfort. 

Figure 1. “Cloth mother” and “wire mother” © 2020 Jane Gerhard

I intentionally chose this study to illustrate the need of physical touch. There is a huge amount of studies which prove that we need physical touch in our social construction and well-being. So, what I am telling is that we are not monkeys but we need physical touch to feel good and develop well. The social distancing we endure these days can really low our well being if we feel isolated mentally.

However, we can still manage to somehow “replace” the physical touch (not at 100% but enough). The chemical hormon delivered in our brain during a touch is oxytocin (Pierrehumbert, 2003), the so-called “happy hormone”. Luckily for us, we also produce this hormone when we give or receive compliments, eat something good, dance or do little attention for someone we love. So go bake that cake you saw on Instagram and write a letter to someone you love. 

Featured image :
  • Weill Cornell Medicine. (2020). ‘Social distancing:’ What does it mean, and how do we do it? Retrieved from :
Bibliography :
  • Harlow H. F., Dodsworth R. O., & Harlow M. K. (1965). Total social isolation in monkeys. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. Retrieved from
  • Harlow’s Classic Studies Revealed the Importance of Maternal Contact. (2018). The Association for Psychological Science. Retrieved from
  • Pierrehumbert, B. (2003). Amour et attachement. Spirale, no 28(4), 31-48.
  • G. J., (2020) Untitled.

Author : Ardiana Dacaj