Love and fear in times of coronavirus: We risk losing the human touch

Part of brain that controls ‘fear’ has not changed for thousand years! Nature did not account for disinformation, which explains why response to fear remains primitive

Love and fear in times of coronavirus: We risk losing the human touch

Vijoy Kumar Sinha

I am what people in England a century ago would have called a ‘compulsive perambulator’. I like walking for pleasure and prefer long and leisurely walks.

Even with the lockdown in place, and much to the discomfiture and censure of family members who believe in following government’s orders to the letter rather than spirit, I go out for a morning walk every morning. But in deference to their concern, I limit the walk now to a 100-meter radius around the house, parading up and down the short track, which ensures the walk terminates quickly.

There are a few more kindred souls in the neighbourhood whom I have been coming across, more or less every morning for past several years. But corona times have altered the morning walks. Our morning encounters no longer begin and end with broad smiles and warm handshakes.

Now, filtering the corona laden thick air through layers of mask, hiding smiles, if any, they alter their course as far as the 30-feet road permits to create as much ‘social distance’ as possible. From the opposite edge of the road, they turn their heads away to the extent allowed by their aging Atlanto axial joints, and with great reluctance they mutter what is barely audible but which, I presume, are greetings. Some of them also raise their arm by way of a compensatory apology of the unspoken kind.

Granted these are unprecedented times (or is it really-- mankind has witnessed worse epidemics and pandemics) caused by a highly contagious disease. But there is no doubt that hype and hyperbole have overtaken facts and reason.

For a disease that has so far recorded a mortality rate of less than a fraction of one percent of cases among young, healthy people, the population at large is behaving as if they are on a precipice, staring in the face of a certain death. It is a different matter that in this country we nonchalantly ride two wheelers without helmets despite 150,000 Indians dying of road accidents every year.

We Indians are essentially simple people, our simplicity bordering on naivete. We would clap with pots and pan from balconies and windows or light lamps and torches on being told to do so. We would also convince ourselves that this deadly virus would be extinguishing itself on a certain date-14th of April, give or take a few days or a few weeks. I do fervently hope for this blind faith to become a reality. But this seems unlikely to happen any time soon.

Will fear then continue to be the sole guiding force behind our behaviour towards fellow human beings? Fear, as a set of emotions, its perception and response, is the function of a part of brain called Amygdaloid complex (part of the limbic system) that is located deep in the temporal lobe and takes all sensory inputs required to process into a response called fear.

We humans enjoy the highest position on the evolutionary ladder, due largely to the best evolved brain compared to even our nearest Darwinian relatives. Surprisingly though, the Amygdaloid complex remains as an evolutionary conserved structure, that has not changed much (even in terms of size) ever since we transitioned from water to land.

No wonder, therefore, for self-preservation, our response to fear essentially remains primitive. But there is just a small caveat. In the evolutionary design of nature, the inputs that decided our physical and psychological response to fear were essentially sensory in nature. What was not factored in by nature was the deluge of processed inputs (from rumours to media). Our poor and primitive amygdala is unable to separate wheat from chaff, resulting in panic of pandemic proportions.

Skin to skin touch, since time immemorial, has been an astounding emotional balm. By raising the level of oxytocin- the love hormone- touch is the panacea for frayed emotions.

From the first comforting touch of the mother’s bosom as a new-born, to the reassuring grasp of parents while taking the first steps as a toddler, it is the human touch that acts as balm. Some remember a teacher’s encouraging pat on the back to speak up long after the event.

A friend’s arm around the shoulder is comforting and helps form a camaraderie of a lifetime. The sensuous touch by someone we love may signal the beginning of a partnership for life. A hand on the shoulder in times of crises brings us solace.

Even the knotty arthritic hands of old men and women holding their newly born grandchildren, cause them unbounded joy and happiness. Even man’s wish in the final moments to have his head in the lap of a dear one is explained only by the strangely comforting and calming effect of physical closeness. Human existence is essentially a journey through a series of satiety derived solely by the comfort of touch.

Pseudo-Freudian analyses, some would say over analyses, and contemporary socio-sexual contexts have already taken away the pleasure of holding hands and cuddling cute, little children, who are now taught to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate touch. Now the coronavirus threatens to make any kind of human touch in public socially unacceptable.

O Lord Corona, from the spectre of a completely touch-deprived existence, I seek deliverance.

(The author is a retired Major General from the Army Medical Corps)

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Published: 06 Apr 2020, 8:01 AM