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A mural by Unify Artists in East London shows lovers embracing with face masks.

Matt Dunham/The Associated Press

Linda Besner’s most recent book is Feel Happier in Nine Seconds.

I’m haunting the perfume section of the Hudson’s Bay department store. Physically, it’s been weeks since I’ve left the confines of my yard, but mentally, I am placing one hand on the heavy brass handle of the revolving door and stepping across the checkered tile floor. I wander from station to station, picking up the cut-glass bottles – fragile or heavy, squat and square-topped or leaning like a lily. Glass makers shape perfume bottles before the fragrance that will fill them exists, and each bottle is crafted with its own subtle symbolism: 12-faceted stoppers to remind me of the passage of time; a thumb-shaped indentation inviting the touch of my hand to complete the figure.

Touch is now the enemy. Hospitals, most importantly, are struggling to equip health care professionals with the personal protective equipment that shields them from the droplets that spin off a sick person’s body. Ottawa park benches are tangled in caution tape; piles of driftwood along Vancouver’s seawall are roped off. Anything someone else has touched should be handled with caution; the constant hand-washing scrubs off the trace of other people and their exhalations. I’m afraid of the touch of my own hand on my face.

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I could be mentally wandering any public space – the Louvre and the Vatican offer free online tours, 12 Frank Lloyd Wright houses are open for virtual visits, and there’s a tiger cam streaming from Australia’s Taronga Zoo. But even before the pandemic, these were all venues that were meant to be toured with one’s hands behind one’s back. The reason I’ve been imagining riding the escalators to the ladies’ wear floor is because a department store is a public space where touching is not only permissible but central. Cool silks, nubbly tweeds, fine wools – I almost never bought anything, but I touched everything.

Now that my sensory world has shrunk so much, I’ve become newly aware of how linked I was to literally hundreds of strangers by objects I touched – every doorknob, every elevator button, the backs of chairs in cafés. My life invisibly overlapped with the lives of others; I was never alone in the way that I often felt I was.


Smiley-face signs show Parisian schoolchildren where they can stand in the courtyard. France, once under a nationwide lockdown, allowed schools to reopen with physical-distancing rules.

Benoit Tessier/Reuters

Jose Gemas, 84, gestures a hug to his son Jose Navarro, right, and a family friend at the end of a visit at a nursing home in Montijo, Portugal. The home set up a box for relatives to meet safely through a glass window.

Armando Franca/The Associated Press


In 2008, Scarlett Johansson’s used Kleenex sold for US$5,300 on eBay. She had caught a cold from Samuel L. Jackson, and she blew her nose on The Tonight Show. She and Jay Leno bagged up the tissue and pledged the proceeds to charity. Ms. Johansson’s fans are hardly unique. Elvis Presley’s Bible, Willie Nelson’s braids, the chair in which J.K. Rowling wrote the first two Harry Potter books, Justin Timberlake’s half-eaten French toast – all of these have fetched high prices at auction.

The desire to possess an object hallowed by the touch of a famous person suggests belief in a powerful transfer of some invisible essence between the person and the material – molecules of Marilyn Monroe clinging to 60-year-old costumes. As if touching something that touched her could bring me closer to knowing her or even to being her. It highlights what we have in common rather than what separates us – it is completely possible that, in my lifetime, I’ve touched a banister or a subway pole right where Marilyn Monroe placed her hand.

The trafficking in celebrity souvenirs echoes the millennia-spanning trade in holy relics. From biblical times, worshippers believed that the bodies of holy people – and objects they had used or touched – had magical properties. Medieval churches claimed that fragments of cloth once used by St. Paul could heal the sick, or that the powdered blood of St. Januarius protected the city of Naples from volcanoes and plague. Pilgrims endured gruelling journeys to address the saints through these remnants, asking to have their prayers promoted further up the chain. Attracting pilgrims and their donations was big business for churches, and competition for the flashiest reliquary set off rashes of robberies, forgeries and sales of fakes: At one point, so many pieces of the True Cross were floating around that French theologian John Calvin quipped: “There is no abbey so poor as not to have a specimen … if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load. Yet the Gospel testifies that a single man was able to carry it.”

The contemporary Catholic church has retained the cult of relics, though to a much lesser extent, and the medieval ratings system is still in place. First-class relics are the blood, bones or hair of Christ or one of the saints or apostles. Second-class relics are clothes or personal property – Elvis’s Bible would fall into this category. At the bottom of the heap, though still possessed of supernatural powers, are items the holy person touched in passing – the subway pole, the French toast, the soft sweater on the department store rack.

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A masked volunteer carries a cross around Bucharest during an April 17 religious service.

Vadim Ghirda/The Associated Press

Father Elias Senona gives an online mass from the empty Christ The King Roman Catholic Church in South Africa's Mabopane township, near Pretoria.

PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP via Getty Images


“It’s not that touch is good, or even that touch is important,” neuroscientist David J. Linden told the audience at a TED Talk based on his 2015 book, Touch: The Science of the Hand, Heart, and Mind. “Rather, it’s that the specifics of our experience, from skin to nerves to brain, are weird.”

His main message is that touch is inextricable from emotion – feeling is feeling. Pain makes us angry or afraid or sad because it is not purely a physical sensation. The warmth of a basic human touch activates the vagus nerve, which is associated with feelings of compassion.

Two systems exist for processing tactile information. One conveys information about where the body is being touched, and how hard or quickly. The other uses a completely different set of sensors, and delivers information in the part of the brain used for decoding social cues.

Touch is the first sense that babies develop, and infants who are deprived of touch grow more slowly, and are more susceptible to physical and mental illness. A 2010 study in Psychological Science suggested that Tylenol could be effective in treating hurt feelings.

Significantly for our self-isolating times, lack of physical touch seems to harm our immune systems. Over a 14-day period, a 2014 study asked 400 healthy adults what their social interactions were like. The subjects were then quarantined in separate rooms on the same floor of an empty hotel and exposed to the virus that causes the common cold. The resulting upper respiratory infections were less severe in people who had reported an abundance of touch in the period preceding their confinement. Hugs, the researchers reported, accounted for 32 per cent of the effect.

Concern about the physical as well as emotional impact of touch-deprivation during the pandemic has led scientists to stress the importance of interacting over video as well as over text or e-mail.

Recently, psychology professor Paul Zak told Time magazine that activities in which participants match up their movements can fulfill many of our needs for touch. Yoga and dance classes in a virtual space can help reproduce the sensation of being physically connected with other people.

A few years ago, when fresh research on the benefits of social touch were making the rounds, some North American scientists saw it as a public duty to encourage a more touchy-feely attitude. Anglo-Saxon culture is notoriously averse to physical displays of affection; in the 1960s, a researcher found that in the same period of time, two friends chatting in a café in Britain would touch each other zero times, while in the United States they touched an average of twice. In France, friends touched 110 times an hour. In Puerto Rico, it was 180 times.

“The science of touch convincingly suggests that we’re wired to – we need to – connect with other people on a basic physical level. To deny that is to deprive ourselves of some of life’s greatest joys and deepest comforts,” wrote psychologist Dacher Keltner for Berkeley’s Greater Good Magazine.

The pandemic may come to mark a fundamental shift in the etiquette of touch. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, recently expressed a hope that Americans will put an end to the custom of shaking hands. The Quebec bisou could disappear. The benefit of hugs will be just as strong, but the circle of people we can share them with may be smaller than ever before.


At Wuhan's railway station, a local medical worker embraces and bids farewell to a colleague from Jiangsu as their team leaves the epicentre of China's novel coronavirus outbreak.

China Daily via REUTERS

Alex Montagano of Montreal demonstrates his 'hugging station' with neighbour Sharon Pearce-Anderson. He built the plastic screen to allow people to embrace others safely.

Christinne Muschi/Reuters


The act of touching an object, as with touching a person, carries emotional resonance. The same circuit that tells us whether a person is touching us in anger or in commiseration draws us into relationships with inanimate materials that are practically interpersonal. Textures seem to speak to us. Last year, the journal Consciousness and Cognition published a study in which blindfolded participants handled 21 objects with markedly different textures: velvet, toy slime, leather and seashells, to name a few. The subjects rated their emotional responses to the materials: Did what they were touching make them happy? Sad? Surprised? Disgusted?

Some of the findings are what you might expect: The softness of rabbit fur made people happy, and a needle-studded acupressure mat made people nervous. But some common responses are delightfully surprising: Bath sponges made people angry, and marble made them sad. It’s odd that a building material so highly prized should have such a negative emotional effect – cultural expectations may tell us that marble countertops are beautiful and expensive, but touch tells us they are hard and cold. The researchers wondered if marble’s role in tombstones and memorials may also lend it chilly associations.

Without blindfolds, most of us move through our daily lives building up relationships with a small set of objects we touch often. On my desk, the clear wine bottle filled with water and the green thermos of coffee are set at a specific angle, and I can’t work unless they are in the right positions. There are also ceremonial objects whose potency lies in their infrequent use. A white china mug decorated with violets sits at the back of my kitchen cupboard: It’s my mother’s, and no one can touch it until her next visit.

If touching a cloth a saint once touched can bring a petitioner closer to the divine, what I miss is the web of interlocking touch that binds us to the ordinary. Fear of disease has brought these invisible networks to light – we are asked to cut ourselves off from each other because all of us were more connected than we knew.

Right now, a room of semi-strangers touching wouldn’t be just dangerous – in some places it would be illegal. But a few weeks before the pandemic was declared, I was at a synagogue event that concluded with the blessing over the challah bread. The rabbi held up the loaf and everyone present touched the challah or touched someone who was touching the challah – or touched someone who was touching someone who was touching the challah. The rabbi asked what the bread made us think of. “A thousand people,” someone said. The bakery staff who sold the loaf, the labourers who harvested the wheat, the truck drivers who shipped it across the country, the line workers who assembled the chassis, the legislators who regulated the terms of trade.

Not many of us would consider ourselves to be on intimate terms with a thousand people. But the backhanded effect of physical distancing is to make us redraw our mental maps, this time with a thousand invisible lines of connection pencilled in.

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Handshakes of the future: A guide

We may never shake hands again, says Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the United States. Some options for its replacement:

FIST BUMP

Knocking knuckles transmits far fewer bacteria than either a handshake or a high five, according to multiple studies.

HAND OVER HEART

The WHO’s director-general said this is his preferred greeting, a gesture also used by Prince Charles and Justin Trudeau.

WUHAN SHAKE

A viral video demonstrated how some Chinese residents now tap toes, a move adopted by delegates at a recent OPEC summit.

ELBOW BUMP

Mercado Libre, a Latin American tech company, replaced the handshake in its logo with this gesture in the early days of the pandemic.

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

We may never shake hands again, says Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the United States. Some options for its replacement:

FIST BUMP

Knocking knuckles transmits far fewer bacteria than either a handshake or a high five, according to multiple studies.

HAND OVER HEART

The WHO’s director-general said this is his preferred greeting, a gesture also used by Prince Charles and Justin Trudeau.

WUHAN SHAKE

A viral video demonstrated how some Chinese residents now tap toes, a move adopted by delegates at a recent OPEC summit.

ELBOW BUMP

Mercado Libre, a Latin American tech company, replaced the handshake in its logo with this gesture in the early days of the pandemic.

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

We may never shake hands again, says Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease expert in the United States. Some options for its replacement:

FIST BUMP

WUHAN SHAKE

Knocking knuckles transmits far fewer bacteria than either a handshake or a high five, according to multiple studies.

A viral video demonstrated how some Chinese residents now tap toes, a move adopted by delegates at a recent OPEC summit.

HAND OVER HEART

ELBOW BUMP

The WHO’s director-general said this is his preferred greeting, a gesture also used by Prince Charles and Justin Trudeau.

Mercado Libre, a Latin American tech company, replaced the handshake in its logo with this gesture in the early days of the pandemic.

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL


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