To Touch or Not to touch. That is the Question

To Touch or Not to Touch? That is the Question


I usually enjoy writing my monthly articles for the Glastonbury Oracle, not only as it gives me a chance to put across some of the complicated theories of Chinese medicine, but also as it gives me a chance to put my mind in order…and boy, does it need to be put in order after these recent events!

My last article was written before lockdown had begun and the true scale of the Covid-19 virus was yet to be seen. Four months and forty-odd thousand deaths later we are beginning to see the bigger picture. But as we begin to tentatively take those first steps out of isolation what truly is the bigger picture?

The British Acupuncture Council, the governing body to which I belong, recommends that when we finally are allowed to practice again, we should do so with both the practitioner and patient wearing face masks and the practitioner wearing gloves. Besides the obvious difficulties this presents with regards to pulse taking and tongue diagnosis, this idea has ramifications that are much more far reaching.

Coincidently, as an undergraduate a dozen or so years ago, my dissertation was entitled ‘Can acupuncture be performed effectively with gloves on?’ After ten thousand or so words my answer was an emphatic ‘No’, and after all this time I still find myself agreeing. Let me explain.

You only truly appreciate something when it’s gone, and this has certainly been true of ‘touch’ in this time of corona-virus. Whether it’s not being able to shake hands when greeting someone, or longing to hug a dying loved one and not being allowed, the rules imposed upon us during this pandemic have touched us all.

Human touch is one of our most basic instincts and one of our more subtle methods of communication. A mothers’ hug to a crying a baby, a grazed knee that is rubbed better, a lovers’ embrace, a wrinkled hand that is reassured with a gentle a stroke, touch is an ever present sense in our lives and this, rightly or wrongly, has for many of us, been taken away.

Lack of touch is not just a fleeting feeling. It’s a restriction that can ripple out well beyond the moment of discomfort. An experiment done in the 1950s on baby rhesus monkeys, showed that a group of monkeys that were deprived of touch ‘lacked the ability to soothe themselves and remained in a heightened and more intense state of terror, for longer.’ Harlow, the scientist who conducted the experiment, concluded that the lack of touch skewed their development.

This notion has also been seen in human development. During the 1990’s in Romania, social policies trying to increase the population led to a massive explosion in the birth rate, and to the subsequent creation of thousands of unwanted orphans. This led, heart-breakingly, to a large-scale occurrence of touch-deprived children. Researchers who subsequently visited stated that the children were mentally and physically stunted. Developmental psychologist Tiffany Field described the situation:

‘The children were extremely mentally delayed on cognitive tests. They walked around behaving like children you’d see with severe autism. They didn’t make eye contact, they didn’t talk, they didn’t smile’

Now I’m not saying that the lockdown was not the right thing to do and I’m not suggesting that we should all run out and hug a stranger but I am wondering what kind of world we would like to emerge out in to. Would you be happy to live your life in a sterile room, hermetically sealed safely away people, germs and viruses in order to prolong your time here on Earth? Do we want to live in a world where the postponement of death is all that matters? For surely it will reach us all at some point, but is the quantity of your life more important than the quality?

These are not simple questions to answer and I don’t claim to have the answers, but to pose the questions is possibly a good start. Do I want to wear gloves during an acupuncture treatment? Will it impair the flow of Qi energy? Can we communicate effectively with each other with a face mask on? What are the true costs of the corona-virus with regards to loneliness, separation, depression, anxiety and suicide? At want point do the effects of lockdown become more harmful than the virus itself?

Maybe these are questions that can start to be addressed as we walk (hand in hand?) out of this isolation together.

Matt Fellows

Glastonbury Acupuncture

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