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Opinion | As Virtual Worlds Grow, We Are Losing Our Sense of Touch

Virtual world-builders know this, too, and are increasingly confronting the need for touch and developing new ways to recreate it. There’s Steve Yonahan’s Haptic Creature — a zoomorphic, robotic slothy thing that purrs and vibrates, influencing the emotional states of humans who pet and hold it. Texas A&M researchers are developing touch screens with “maximum haptic effect” to transmit textures (you’ll feel the difference between sateen and percale sheets online, they claim). Researchers at Johns Hopkins found incorporating haptic feedback into prosthetic upper limbs has made them easier for amputees to use.

Tiffany Field, the director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, has been studying touch for more than four decades. Her research reveals the importance of touch from the earliest stages of human life. Pregnancy massage reduces low birth weight (as well as postpartum depression). Massaging the limbs of preterm infants with moderate pressure leads them to gain weight 47 percent faster. Touch produces oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone” that bonds parents to their newborns during “skin-to-skin time.” Touch improves attentiveness and quantitative performance (speed and accuracy on math problems). In adolescent mothers experiencing depression, massage decreases anxious behaviors. In patients with H.I.V., massage therapy leads to an increase in natural killer cells. Anorexia, autism, backaches, cancer, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, multiple sclerosis and PTSD all respond to touch.

Even victims of sexual abuse benefit from therapeutic touch. After a month of twice-weekly massages, women studied by the Touch Research Institute experienced less depression and anxiety, and their cortisol levels had dropped. Women in the no-massage control group “reported an increasingly negative attitude toward touch.”

Reading about the work of Liisa Holsti, a neonatal pain researcher, and Karon MacLean, a haptics researcher, I was surprised how moved I could be learning about haptic technology. Their 2020 study introduced the Calmer, a rectangular incubator insert fitted with pneumatic bellows, subwoofers and a microcontroller that replicates a mother’s breathing rate, heartbeat and touch for preterm babies in the NICU. “Skin-to-skin time,” or “Kangaroo care,” when the baby is laid belly-down on the parent’s chest after birth, lessens newborn pain. If a parent can’t be present or a nurse is unavailable to comfort the baby during a routine procedure, such as a blood draw, the Calmer offers an alternative to human touch interaction, what a mother who participated in the study described as “a backup me.”

I was admittedly anti-touch for most of my life. (I’ve known other people with eating disorders who are, too; my equally anti-touch best friend and I would joke about the jangly awkwardness of our Christmas hug.) That changed when I had a baby and I discovered how the six-pound weight of my son on my chest felt like the heaviest love in the world. No wonder engineering the first sense is so important.

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