Why it’s important to explore the science of touch

Our long physical separations, in fear of COVID-19, reinforced what scientists already believed: that our close connections with others keep us healthy.

We experience the world through our senses: touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste. 

Among the five, the sense of touch is singularly important, a growing body of research confirms. As contributing writer Cynthia Gorney explains in this month’s cover story, “Human beings require the physical presence of others, the comforting touch of others, in order to stay healthy.” 

At the School for Creativity in Andria, Italy, students learn that lesson at an early age. “The culture of touch in that school is daily,” says longtime National Geographic photographer Lynn Johnson. “Moment by moment. It’s very physical. They’re always hugging and kissing.” In the photo above, the children play a game in which a blindfolded student tries to recognize a classmate just by touch. Invariably they got it right, Johnson says. 

This cover story assignment required Johnson to show the power of touch with her images. To do that, she told me, she “went on a mission: to try to look for situations, for people, for whom touch is a critical part of their lives—their survival, their orientation in life.” 

That mission took her to Margaret Malarney and her family in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. “I met Margaret when she was minimally conscious. I didn’t see any response on her face,” Johnson says. But over a series of visits spanning seven months, Johnson witnessed “the way the family physically loved her back to life. We don’t know the science behind it; we don’t know why.”

And yet, Johnson says, “we can believe that touch has such value.”

Thank you for reading National Geographic.

This story appears in the June 2022 issue of National Geographic magazine.

Read This Next

Mauna Loa erupts for first time in 38 years—what happens next?
These are the best travel photos of 2022
How an ancient revolt sparked the Festival of Lights

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet