Listen: Is Human Touch Necessary?

If you’ve been touched on the shoulder by a human hand, it’s different than if you leaned your shoulder against the wall. Knowing that it’s a human creates this cascade of emotional signals that aren’t re-created, even if it was the exact same pressure in the exact same duration. Depending how sustained that is, and if you have a sort of typical reaction to touch, you’re going to be suddenly without those hormones.  

Wells: Do we know anything about the long-term effects of sensory deprivation?

Hamblin: I wouldn’t expect it would change your relationship to touch long term, but this is just another of the many generally nice and stress-relieving and humanizing inputs that we are missing, which in aggregate is not good for us. They’re not good for that ethereal thing we call health. You might sleep a little less well because you feel a little more stressed and you feel a little more alone and you have a little less dopamine.

Wells: Our last question is from Tony, who notes that we’re all talking about needing more ventilators, but it sounds like the majority of patients that need them are dying. Why aren’t ventilators working as we thought they might?

Hamblin: There’s a lot about the disease that’s surprising us. We’re seeing some early evidence that people who would normally need ventilators are able to get by without. That has partly to do with the weird blood oxygen levels that we’re seeing in this disease that don’t follow what we would normally see. Normally, we’d want to put someone on a ventilator, because you’d be assuming they were in respiratory distress.

It also has to do with how long this disease lasts. People are on ventilators for a very long time, and over time that has negative consequences to the lungs.

Wells: So ventilators are actually doing harm to people?

Hamblin: They’ve saved a lot of lives, but ventilators always have a negative effect, too. It’s not a perfect intervention. You have to be sedated. It is forcibly blowing air into your lungs, and over time that force can cause damage. You have to be weaned off of it slowly, because you can’t go from getting tons of oxygen forced into your lungs to shutting it off, so you’re gonna be out for a while. Then, there’s a rehabilitative process you have to go through. Ventilators have saved many lives in this crisis, but they initially seemed to save so many lives that there was this bias to put everyone on ventilators when they were crashing. Now they’re thinking that if there’s any way to avoid it, they will.

Wells: It seems like that is a potentially positive development, that not as many people actually are needing ventilators as we thought would.

Hamblin: Yeah, it’s also good because it aligns with what was a short link in our supply chain. We still need a ton of ventilators, and we will still run out if we get hit really hard and let up on social distancing. This is not to say it’s not an issue, but when someone has to go on a ventilator, they’re extremely, critically ill, so outcomes are never good. It’s a last-ditch effort to have something else breathe for you. But there’s some hope that some people can avoid them, and that is good news.

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