'Everybody needs touch, especially the elderly," says Beata Aleksandrowicz. "Very often they are alone, their partners have gone or have died or they're sick, and nobody is touching them." In a calmly lit treatment room in west London, Aleksandrowicz, a massage therapist, is speaking about a project she launched in June which saw therapists across the country give free hand massages to elderly people in nursing homes.
The response was heartening. "I had reactions such as, 'Oh, I had no idea that I need touch so much' or, 'Oh, it's like I'm in fairyland!'" But Aleksandrowicz found getting the project off the ground difficult - partly because of its name: Touch Me ... Please. The word "touch", she explains, has such negative connotations that some care homes were reluctant to become involved.
Bertrand Russell once wrote: "Not only our geometry and our physics, but our whole conception of what exists outside us is based upon the sense of touch." But our experience of touch is dwindling. Increasingly we live alone, have virtual friends, shy away from any kind of physical contact with strangers for fear it might be unhygienic, or inappropriate, or could become violent.
The effects of not touching can prove detrimental to our wellbeing, both as individuals and as a society. "When you touch or are touched, you get the feeling of being connected with yourself and with others," says Aleksandrowicz, placing one hand on my arm. "When I touch you, you feel my touch - so by my touch you feel that you exist, and you can connect with me. It is a feeling of being important, of being taken care of."
A 1997 study into the amount of touching and aggression among adolescents looked at the behaviour of 40 teenagers in McDonald's outlets in Paris and Miami. It found that American adolescents spent considerably less time stroking, kissing, hugging and leaning against their peers than their French counterparts did.
Interestingly, the Americans showed more self-touching - such as playing with rings on their fingers, wringing their hands, twirling hair, wrapping arms around themselves, cracking knuckles, biting their lips - and also behaviour that was more aggressive, verbally and physically, towards their peers.
These findings are worrying - particularly because research suggests that an absence of touching and physical interaction during adolescence may result in violent behaviour in later life. Touch deprivation appears to lead to a depletion in norepinephrine and serotonin, which, along with dopamine, are neurotransmitters affecting mood. When levels of norepinephrine and serotonin fall, levels of dopamine are left uninhibited - leading to the impulsive, often aggressive, behaviour associated with high levels of dopamine. (Research also suggests that levels of norepinephrine and serotonin may be increased through touch.)
And yet, even though we're isolating ourselves from it, humans crave physical touch. It is one of the reasons people keep pets, Aleksandrowicz believes: "Because they can touch them, they can exchange warmth with them." And we look for touch, too, Aleksandrowicz suspects, in casual sexual encounters. Not that we should. "Casual sex is not about touch, it's about sex, and sex is not necessarily touch," she says. "So you wake up in the morning with the feeling that it was a total mistake, and you still need to be held and embraced."
In many ways it was her own yearning for touch that brought Aleksandrowicz to massage. "I had some problems with my second husband," she says. "We had a lot of problems with intimacy, we couldn't open up for each other, and our friend just gave us the advice to try to touch each other a lot and just see how it goes. And I was amazed how closed I was to touch. I could not receive touch - it made me panic."
Now she offers courses for couples (as well as encouraging parents to massage their children, so they grow up to find touch usual). "You suddenly see these men who open up so much," she says.
Aleksandrowicz was born in Poland. She is wary of making generalisations about a nation, but in Britain, she says, "There is not a culture where touch is natural. We don't feel very confident in the presence of others, therefore touch is not natural, it's not organic, and the word 'touch' is so misused."
However, the situation is improving. Five years ago, when searching for premises for her company, Pure Massage, estate agents told Aleksandrowicz she would have to change the business's name. "We were looking for a property for two years!" Now massage has been solidly reclaimed as a reputable business.
But it is not just the UK where negative or uncomfortable attitudes have prevailed. Aleksandrowicz recently returned from a trip to meet bushmen in the Kalahari. She expected them to have a much freer approach to physical interaction - and was shocked to find that was not the case. "I was in the middle of Namibia, 40 degrees, sitting on the sand, with people who I've never seen before, whose culture is 40,000 years old, and they were all asking about touch," Aleksandrowicz says.
She massaged everyone in the village, sometimes several times over. The first to be massaged was the oldest woman in the village. "Suddenly there was silence, this whole village stopped what they were doing - they stopped talking and started to sing," says Aleksandrowicz. She believes that the political situation of the bushmen - landless, powerless, severed from their traditions and history - has led to this intense feeling of disconnection. "It was very interesting. All of them asked me to touch their chests - the most emotional part of the body, and also responsible for the ego. They don't know who they are - they're lost."
Some would say that people in the west are also losing sight of who they are. We shy from touching each other, but are obsessed with appearance. We would rather, for example, go under the surgeon's knife than accept our own bodies. "We are living in a materialistic time," says Aleksandrowicz, "where if you don't see, you don't have. So we have cars, we have high salaries, we have the right shape of our bottom ... But we stop believing that we have enormous potential inside us."
And what does Aleksandrowicz get from a career that involves touching people all day long? "It's amazing," she says sweetly. "It is a communication on the most basic fundamental level, where there are no words or judgment or ego. It's just the purest possible interaction between two people".