Soon after psychologist James Coan suffered a “widowmaker” heart attack at the age of 49, he was lying on a hospital table in cardiogenic shock with a 50-50 chance of survival.
“While I was there, apparently dying, one of the things that happened was a nurse held my hand,” Coan told TODAY about the health crisis.
“It sort of burned in my memory as an extremely gentle and humane thing to have done.”
It “undoubtedly” helped him pull through, he said, “and supposing it didn’t, what I know now coming through, having not died, is that it would have made that death a lot nicer."
Coan, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia, now teaches a course called “Why we hold hands.” As the director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience Laboratory, he studies the power of human touch. The coronavirus crisis — which has effectively banned people from hugging or touching anyone outside their social bubbles — has been “a uniquely hellish time” for mental health, he noted.
Why do we need hugging and hand-holding so much? Coan explains:
What do people go through when there's so much less in-person contact?
There's the standard stress — the feeling that we're lonely. But also when you spend lots of time separated from your normal social networks, your brain is put under extremely high amounts of cognitive load — meaning you have way more stuff to think and worry about. Your brain starts becoming more vigilant for potential dangers — it starts to ruminate for longer about things that have gone wrong — and by doing that, it crowds out other things you would normally be doing like self-care, enjoying yourself, just walking around and letting your mind wander.
What’s the impact on our mental health?
Our brains naturally tend to outsource part of that worrying and vigilance for potential dangers to our social networks. So if the social networks aren't working, then that extra work is on us and that's exhausting, so we wind up feeling like we're in a brain fog all the time.
A lot of people describe this state of non-sad depression these days. It's where they say, “I'm not feeling sad. I don't know why I'm depressed. I just want to take naps all the time and I can't think,” and that is a really good way to describe what happens to your brain when it’s not able to stop worrying about things.
What’s so powerful about hugging and hand-holding?
Hugging is a way to unambiguously let your brain know that you are not alone. And when you're not alone, you have another set of eyes to look out for potential problems. You have another set of hands to help you lift things. You have another prefrontal cortex to work out complex problems. And that's amazing for your brain.
Hugging is a form of huddling. Mammals conserve body heat by squishing our bodies together and we've been doing that since we were little tiny rodents avoiding dinosaurs.
With hand-holding, the more I looked into it, the more I realized it was special. Hands are packed with all kinds of extrasensory neurons — they're almost like their own sensory organs.
It's a human universal, meaning it happens everywhere on Earth. All over the world, people are more likely to touch, hold, dance, sing together, reminisce, do all of the things that we do to bond when they're under stress. And what was the one thing we couldn't do anymore during the pandemic? The thing that we're most naturally gravitate toward as a way of regulating our own emotions.
Do we need hugs?
Absolutely we need hugs. There's no question. You will hopefully have someone that you can connect to in this way. And when you do, you will experience the feeling of not having to do as much, and that feeling feels really good.
How do we fill that void now?
There's some evidence that hugging a pet helps and people are adopting pets like crazy during the pandemic. My family even did it — we got two kittens and they’re awesome. I don't suffer from the lack of hugs because my kids crawl on top of me every day. But the cats even help me, so I think pets are helpful.
I also suspect singing to each other might not be a bad idea. Think about Bergamo, Italy, during the early parts of the pandemic when they were experiencing incredible levels of death and disarray. What did they do? They went out on their balconies and started singing to each other.
When Notre Dame was burning in Paris, same thing. People out on the streets started singing together watching their beloved landmark burn when they couldn't do anything else about it.
How can singing help?
People all over the world, in every culture, sing and dance together when we're stressed.
You might feel odd singing for someone, like maybe you don't have a good voice or whatever. But when you do that and you make yourself vulnerable to embarrassment and then someone else responds positively, your brain gets a huge dose of oxytocin and dopamine. You feel good and you feel safe because you know that other people care about you.
It doesn’t have to be singing, it's about doing something — writing a poem, sending a photograph with a letter of reminiscence — that forces you to open yourself to a kind of vulnerability that is genuinely risky, emotionally.
It's probably not going to do the same amount of work that hugging and touching does, but I'm telling people, if you want to get close — want to inch your way towards that — work on your ability to be vulnerable with other people. [Coan then sang to a journalist who can report it had a warm, joyful, happy effect.]
This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.