Even if you aren’t a touchy-feely-huggy kind of person, you hopefully have one or two people in your life allowed to rub up on you every now and then. Even the most standoffish among us need to feel occasional skin-on-skin touch. Otherwise, we might start to experience something called skin hunger — the urge to touch bodies and have our bodies be touched. If you find yourself suddenly wanting to hug casual acquaintances, fist-bump strangers, or cuddle with Ruth in HR, you might be experiencing skin hunger.
In our contemporary standoffish culture, we should really take skin hunger more seriously, as there are so many benefits to getting touched often enough, and serious downsides when you don’t. Depression is the obvious one. Even otherwise well-adjusted people can get seriously depressed without plenty of skin-on-skin contact. Studies have found that even getting a quick massage can greatly decrease feelings of depression.
Another side effect of skin hunger is less obvious but more dangerous: aggression. A study found that French teens, who live in a “high contact” culture, touched each other more often when hanging out and were less likely to be aggressive than American teens. But the easiest place to spot how inhuman a skin-starved person can get is solitary confinement in prison. Not being touched is a specific element of their punishment, and prolonged withdrawal will emotionally and psychologically scar prisoners. And mental instability is not something incarcerated people need any more of.
Part of the problem is that we are now so connected online, but more isolated in real life. You can’t receive a hug from your Facebook friends, no matter how convincing the emojis are getting. It’s simply an essential part of nature. Baby monkeys in lab tests will even prefer a fake monkey mother that can give physical contact and support over one that is made of wire but gives food. Intimacy over food, huh? Turns out those old pizza delivery guy pornos were wholesome after all.