You probably didn’t think twice about it before the pandemic, but a hug is one of the things people miss the most in the Covid-19 era. A recent UK survey placed the simple interaction at number 4 in a list of most-missed activities, along with a wide range of social events.
There are many reasons for this, some of which are clear and others that aren’t, and the arrival of vaccines is welcome news for anyone longing to hold a loved one in their arms again.
But why is this physical gesture so important to us? This article explores the science behind it that can provide some clues.
Wanting something we can’t have
It’s a simple human emotion but when we know we can’t have something, we simply want it more. Whether it’s something harmless like wanting that luxury pair of sneakers we can’t afford, or potentially destructive like chasing the elusive slots jackpot that causes us to forget how to gamble safely, we find that the thrill of the chase makes the prize seem even more special.
The same logic applies to a hug. Embracing someone is a simple, easy way to show someone you care about them and, more importantly to our ego, for them to show they care about you. It also gives us an intoxicating hit of dopamine, the chemical that gives us pleasure, and when we’re denied this, we often begin to desire or even crave it. What’s worse is that the longer we have to wait for the dopamine, the more we need it – a little like a drug addiction.
The pursuit of dopamine is something that we’ve evolved over the course of human existence. We get it through activities that are fundamental to survival, such as eating tasty food and having sex, which explains why it’s an inbuilt mechanism that we often have little control over.
A survival instinct
Another reason why we have little control over this urge is more physical, yet still a product of our evolution. We have known skin-to-skin contact from the moment we were born, when we depended on our mother’s care to keep us warm and provide us comfort. As babies, being embraced reduces our stress levels, helps us to grow and even helps to regulate our heartbeat. Human contact literally saves our lives.
While we depend less on it as we grow up, it still forms an important part of our social relationships. We embrace friends we haven’t seen in a while, hold loved ones in our arms and even hug to celebrate a happy event. Doing this reinforces a sense of solidarity and reduces the chances of conflict, something that would have been essential to our survival in early human history: the groups that were able to forge strong bonds were more likely to survive than fragmented communities.
While it might be less important for survival in today’s world, having close human contact helps stave off modern afflictions, such as anxiety and depression, which are prevalent in a fast-paced society. It’s no surprise that the Covid pandemic has seen a rise in mental health issues – not being able to touch people can have negative psychological effects which are destructive to our well-being.
Being able to hug people also gives us rewards through the biology of our skin. Every one of us depends on a complex network of sensory receptors that help to protect us and discover new things. We might want to feel a piece of fruit to check that it’s ok before eating or know when a bee lands on our arm so we can swat it away. Our touch sends signals to our brain so that it knows how to react, so something significant like a hug triggers many receptors at once which deliver instant feelings of warmth and pleasure.
Scientists have taken this further by linking embraces another important part of our physiology: our nerves. We have touch-sensitive nerves in key locations of the body, such as the back, which are triggered when the body is touched or caressed, sending powerful and positive electric signals to the brain. The brain then releases neurochemicals, such as oxytocin, which flood our bodies and help us to fight stress and pain.
It’s worth bearing in mind the nature of the hug, though. An unsolicited embrace – an aggressive bear hug, for example – might end up having the opposite effect.
With our natural need for hugging, we might find us asking ourselves an agonizing question – will we ever be able to hug like we did before?
The simple answer is yes, eventually. Human nature means that we’ll always seek a hug when we need one. Also, studies of past pandemics show that the world always reverted to physical embracing in the end.
The issue is how long it will take. Even with a majority-vaccinated population, the psychological effects of the pandemic might take some time to subside. In countries like Spain and Italy, a key part of social life – kisses included – was erased overnight back in March 2020, and such a shock takes a while for society to get over.
So, if you ever feel that missing hugs is weird, don’t worry. Science backs you up – and it also tells us that they’ll be back on the agenda sooner or later.