It is hard to resist the urge to touch one’s face. This has been true, an irrefutable fact of human existence, for a while now. At the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, there is a life-size sculptural reconstruction of one of our ancestors, Australopithecus sediba, who roamed the earth two million years ago. The creature is shown pressing a gnarled forefinger to an earlobe. Now, with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, humanity is confronting a face-touching crisis. The virus has brought widespread confusion and uncertainty, but there is a consensus among public-health officials that the most basic step you can take to protect yourself and others is to wash your hands frequently and to keep those hands from colliding with your face.
Science tells us that this is easier said than done. One study of “hand-to-face contact rates” found that subjects touched their faces some fifteen times per hour. Researchers in Australia put the number at twenty-three. Another measure of the prevalence of face-touching is the social stigma against it. All of our lives, we have been told not to touch our faces, especially in public, in the interest of etiquette. It’s bad form to go digging for eye gunk at a dinner-party table; it’s unwise to trouble a zit during a job interview. There are particularly strong taboos against probing facial orifices—picking your nose, mining earwax, using your fingernail to pry loose the scrap of Swiss chard that has wound itself around a tooth—perhaps because the impulse to perform this kind of under-the-hood maintenance is so powerful.
Yet the prospect of social ostracism, the fear of grossing out friends and neighbors, the knowledge that we are liable to introduce bacteria to our bodies and offload it to others in the vicinity—none of this, apparently, is enough to stop us from jabbing and tugging and kneading our faces. A Washington Post article from last week detailed instances of politicians brushing hair from their brows and licking their fingertips mere seconds after warning Americans to refrain from such behaviors. In short, the coronavirus crisis has reminded us that, for all our airs and graces, we are filthy beasts. We wallow in oceans of schmutz; we smear additional schmutz on and in our faces, more or less continuously.
Face-touching haunts our history; it is immortalized in art and literature. Depictions of the expulsion from Eden show Adam with hands clapped over his eyes in shame. Images of hand-to-face contact echo in the songs of bards. Think of Romeo, gazing up at Juliet on the balcony: “See, how she leans her cheek upon her hand! / O, that I were a glove upon that hand, / That I might touch that cheek!” Consider some other icons: Rodin’s Thinker; Clement Clarke Moore’s St. Nicholas, “laying his finger aside of his nose”; Munch’s Screamer; Macaulay Culkin’s Screamer; Dr. Evil, with his pinky poised coquettishly on his lips; Beyoncé, holding her titanium “roboglove” to her cheek in the “Single Ladies” video. Writers in particular are inveterate face-touchers. Flip open a book to the author photo and you will find a head balanced on a hand, a pose whose mix of thoughtful, blasé, and smug is evidently international code for “I am a litterateur.” Face-touching inflects our modern language of memes and GIFs and SMS, from the facepalm hashtag to the see-, hear-, and speak-no-evil monkey emojis. What would life be like if strict segregation of hands and faces was in place? What would culture look like going forward? These are questions—as Arsenio Hall might put it, raising a slender finger to his temple—that make you go, “Hmmm.”
In the meantime, logistics are getting complicated. Without touching your face, it is hard to eat and drink, at least in the modern, urban way, gulping down a bagel and coffee on the run. It is difficult to turn a presentable face to the world. Fluffing up coiffure and smoothing down eyebrows, putting on makeup and keeping it shipshape, applying moisturizer and sunscreen—performing these actions hands-free is tricky. Communication is undermined. This morning, I called out to a friend across the street. To make my voice heard over the traffic, I encircled my mouth with my hands to form a little megaphone; my friend cupped a hand around his right ear. It was a face-touching two-fer. I probably should have waited for the light to change.
Some of the most eloquent statements we make require no spoken words. But our vocabulary of gestures is impoverished when hand-to-face contact is removed from the equation. Children on the playground will have to jettison the “Nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah” taunt, where the thumbs are thrust into ears and the fingers waggle. We will have to find a way to indicate snobbery that doesn’t involve lifting the tip of the nose. Obscene gestures will be particularly hard hit. It is interesting to note how many of these gestures, from the Italian chin flick to the South Asian Cutis, reflect the idea of contagion: launching an armada of microbes in the direction of your adversary.
Under the present conditions, it is advisable to avoid the kind of guy who does a lot of chin-flicking. Of course the more pressing challenge is to control one’s own reckless hand-to-face contact. The Brooklyn café where I am typing these words, cheek by jowl with other laptoppers, may well be a coronavirus incubator—every tabletop slathered in pathogens, each oat-milk cortado topped with a frothy dollop of SARS-CoV-2. It is a place where, you would think, a person could remember to stop touching his face, especially a person who is in the process of writing an article on the subject of face-touching. Yet in the last hour I must have rubbed my eyes, massaged my forehead, scratched my cheeks, itched my nose, yanked my earlobes, and stroked my chin dozens of times.
Brain researchers have offered a possible explanation. The authors of a study published in 2014 hypothesized that “spontaneous facial self-touch” helps to jump-start the memory, process information, and regulate emotions. Like many self-employed information-economy workers, I perform my job in a near-permanent state of blind panic, hunched over a screen for hours on end. Without that soothing self-touch, a little massage to calm the nerves and get the synapses firing, the entire enterprise might grind to a halt.
It is an irony of the moment: the moratorium on anxiety-alleviating hand-to-face action has come at a time when we’re extra anxious, more apt than ever to reflexively stretch our fingers toward the old bean in an attempt to restore equilibrium. Even those who appear to have little in the way of a functional interior life are affected. (“I haven’t touched my face in weeks,” Donald Trump told reporters last week. “I miss it.”) There is perhaps another, deeper reason why, now more than ever, we find ourselves inclined to clutch at our faces. In this new plague time, when life has turned surreal, when news of quarantines and skyrocketing infections fill the news and frightening prospects loom on the horizon, face-touching may meet a unconscious psychic-spiritual need, serving as a kind of existential spot-check. Eyes, ears, nose, mouth: yep, all present and accounted for. For the time being, at least, everything is in its place.
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