Armed with a bottle of Lysol and rolls of paper towels, Anya Fetcher packed up her car with enough food to get her through a road trip, and clothes to last several weeks, and headed to a friend’s home. The first thing she did when she arrived was ask for a hug.
“He started to pull away and I was like, ‘Wait, can we just stay here for another second? It’s been four weeks since [I’ve had] any kind of human contact,’ ” she told me. Thanks to the pandemic, a month of no physical interaction with another human—no hugs, no handshakes, no high-fives or fist bumps—had taken a toll on her mental health. “My depression and anxiety were flaring up,” Fetcher said. “It was affecting my work, too.”
Fetcher, a 33-year-old environmental advocate based in Maine, is one of 35.7 million Americans who live alone—which now can mean social distancing alone, too. Many have turned to things like Zoom or FaceTime to hold virtual happy hours and game nights. But while video chats offer (lowercase) face time that might be enough connection for some, the lack of real-life contact leaves others hurting. Tech can step up to fill that gap.
We don’t yet have the intelligent robots imagined by science fiction, but current research suggests mechanical interaction can still provide benefits. A study of human-robot interaction suggests robot-initiated touch can be calming during a scary movie. Researchers had a group of 67 participants watch movies with an orange and white humanoid robot about the size of a Pomeranian. In the first part of the study, half of the participants “bonded” with the robot by interacting with it, and half did not. In part two, all participants watched scary movies with the robot; the robot reached out and touched some participants during the movie. Even for those who did not “bond” with the robot, their heart rates decreased when touched, a sign of a feeling calmed.
Another study found that when people “meet” a robot and shake hands with it, they are more likely to keep interacting with it than if there was no initial handshake. One study even found participants were physiologically aroused by touching a humanoid robot’s “intimate” areas. But while the friendly robots of research aren’t available yet to come home with you, robotic pets are already used to comfort seniors dealing with conditions ranging from loneliness to dementia. They are ideal for people who don’t have the ability to care for a real pet, and they have been shown to reduce stress and anxiety in dementia patients. Interacting with pets can produce some of the same physiological reactions as interacting with humans, so why not robo-pets?
Aside from robots that mimic humans or other animals, there is a range of tech products that are readily available to provide social comfort. An invention out of Japan, the Hugvie, aims to give long-distance phone calls a physical component. The Hugvie is a big pillow that looks a bit like Casper the Friendly Ghost, with a slot for a phone. The user hugs it during a phone call, and the pillow vibrates and pulses based on the tone of the caller’s voice. In a similar vein, there is a shirt that allows you to send hugs remotely. The CuteCircuit Hug Shirt is filled with sensors that “record” a hug and let you send it to another Hug Shirt as targeted vibrations.
While the Hugvie and CuteCircuit shirt both combine the social and physical aspects of touch, other products focus on just the physical element. Touch itself, even disconnected from social interaction, may be crucial for human well-being. Babies and children who are touch-deprived can suffer short- and long-term side effects: developmental delays, slower weight gain, hormone imbalances, behavioral issues, and even changes to their DNA. In adults, hugs been shown to protect against stress and infection and cheer people up after a bad day. In one experiment, a gentle touch on the shoulder made participants more likely to choose cooperation over competition in a “prisoner’s dilemma” game.
Fetcher said she felt the impact of her friend’s hug right away. “Immediately, I [felt] like my spirit is better,” she said. “Which is interesting considering I am an introvert and I usually feel like I do not depend on other people for that kind of energy.” While this was surprising to Fetcher, it makes sense—it might not have been the social interaction she was craving, but the physiological effects of a hug.
According to Niketa Kumar, a psychologist in San Francisco’s Bay Area, the body doesn’t necessarily care where touch is coming from. “The key is that you are stimulating touch—so that’s pressure to the skin,” Kumar said. Touch causes the release of oxytocin, sometimes called the “cuddle hormone” or “love hormone,” though scientists are still figuring out the nuanced ways oxytocin affects humans. But the physiological responses to touch can be felt from any touch, as long as it’s wanted, whether it is from a friend, yourself, or a robot. “The benefits of human touch [are something] we can actually give ourselves,” Kumar said.
Eventually, Fetcher may be able to get a hug without road-tripping to a friend’s house. Los Angeles–based artist Lucy McRae created the Compression Carpet, a machine that simulates a hug. It’s an interactive art exhibit, not a scientific prototype, but it inspires ideas about what the future could hold. Lined with peach-colored cushions, it looks sort of like a tanning bed that sandwiches the user in a sort of hug. McRae’s previous invention, the Compression Cradle, was similar, but more like an air mattress that inflated around the user, who could control the intensity with a panel of buttons.
A simpler—and currently widely available—way to simulate the pressure of a hug is a weighted blanket. Weighted blankets have become popular for people with anxiety and other conditions aggravated by sensory overload. A related product, Tjacket, uses inflatable airbags to create soothing pressure, much like the ThunderShirt you might put on your dog when there’s a storm. You can control the amount of pressure by controlling how inflated the airbags are, and it can even be programed to inflate and deflate continuously. These products could be used by people experiencing touch deprivation to mimic physical contact.
Proponents of weighted blankets say they mimic hugs through deep tissue stimulation, producing a surge of hormones like oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine. But the research backing this claim up is flimsy. It’s a challenging claim to test at all. It’s impossible to compare the effects of a weighted blanket to a placebo—with weighted blankets, participants would always be able to tell whether they had the real thing. But at the same time, it doesn’t really matter to an anxious or touch-deprived person if a weighted blanket’s benefits are just the placebo effect. There’s not much difference between a blanket triggering the release of soothing hormones or the idea of the blanket triggering that surge. If it helps, it helps.
Another easy-to-replicate form of interpersonal touch is massage. We may think of electric massagers built for sore shoulders or achy feet as merely pain relief, but they could also stand in as a source of beneficial touch. Massages have been shown to reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, boost immune system white blood cells, and reduce pain. The person giving the massage, not just receiving it, even reaps some of the benefits, which some researchers believe is due to the fact both people are feeling pressure on their skin, highlighting the importance of the physical sensations of touch. And if you’d rather use a machine than try to reach your own back, you’re in luck—there’s evidence that massage doesn’t have to come from a person at all to be beneficial. Massage chairs have been shown to increase oxytocin levels, suggesting that they have more wide-ranging effects on our bodies than relaxing muscle knots. This research suggests benefits but is not much more solid than that supporting weighted blankets, but again, we don’t need to know the mechanisms—or discount the placebo effect—of these low-risk alternatives in order to make use of them.
There are obvious limits to tech-assisted touch, but there are limits to human touch too. A hug from a loved one and a hug from a stranger are not the same. Anyone who has tried to soothe a fussy baby has likely seen that babies as young as just a few months old react differently when touched or hugged by a parent instead of a stranger.
There is no question that a weighted blanked or personal robot buddy isn’t going to provide the same emotional support that a hug from a loved one does. But when a hug from a loved one isn’t possible, and won’t be for weeks or even months, pairing a hug shirt with a Zoom call may help a little, and little things can add up.
“Oftentimes it can feel like ‘Oh, this just isn’t the same’ or ‘It’s not enough,’ and that’s true,” Kumar said. But at the same time, “taking small steps every day, every time we can, I really do notice makes a big impact.”
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.