This robot is designed to hold your hand when you're feeling lonely

This robot is designed to hold your hand when you're feeling lonely
Thanasis Zovoilis/Getty Images
  • Japanese engineers created a hand-holding robot that can squeeze back on command.
  • The robot's warmth and pressure could have a calming effect, but the person attached to the hand matters most, psychologists said.
  • This invention comes amidst a loneliness pandemic that was going on long before the coronavirus caused an increase in social isolation.

At a time when many are isolated without a hand to hold, engineers in Japan have designed a device to let people experience an illusion of human contact.

This disembodied robot hand - called Osampo Kanojo, or "My Girlfriend in Walk" - is covered in a skin-like gel that radiates warmth. It can squeeze back on command, and in later prototypes, its designers are hoping to make it smell, sound, and sweat like a human partner.

The prototype presented at the International Virtual Reality Conference this year did not include the full range of functions the designers envisioned, so the invention is not yet complete. When it's ready, there's a large and growing market for such a product, experts said.
Advertisement
"We have this biological need to be with others," Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University, told Insider. "And right now, particularly, we're at a loss for how to fulfill that need."

But the thing about hand-holding is that the person on the other end matters, Holt-Lunstad said. While the robot hand could mimic the warmth and pressure of a human hand, it lacks the emotional connection that usually underlies hand-holding.

Insider spoke with Holt-Lunstad and James Coan, an affective neuroscientist who specializes in hand-holding, about how this kind of contact affects the brain and how you can fight loneliness if you're stuck holding your own hand.
Advertisement

Hand-holding has a calming effect on the brain

The warmth and pressure of holding someone's hand is enough to tell the brain to relax a little bit, Coan told Insider. As the director of the Virginia Affective Neuroscience laboratory, he has studied people as they held hands in high-stress situations, like sitting in an MRI machine expecting an electric shock.

Coan explained that the physical sensation of holding someone's hand - or, even better, getting a squeeze back - is unconditionally pleasurable for humans. Fundamentally, it tells the brain you're not alone. "What that means to your brain is that you have extra resources," Coan said. "Imagine you're walking through the woods and there could be a potential predator around. It's way better to have four eyes than two."
Advertisement

It's not just about touch

But, much of the psychological benefits of hand-holding depend on the person to whom the hand belongs. In multiple neuroimaging studies, Coan found that holding the hand of a stranger is associated with a slightly toned-down threat response, but holding the hand of a spouse had an even stronger calming effect.

What's more, couples who reported a higher level of satisfaction with their marriage experienced a greater psychological benefit from holding hands. They saw the most significant attenuation of the brain systems involved in the emotional and behavioral threat responses.

"It's not only about just the tactile qualities of the hand you're holding," Coan said. "It's also a lot about whose hand it is, and what your experience is with that person."
Advertisement

The rise of tech inventions to treat loneliness

This isn't the first time humans have invented a robot with the primary purpose of holding hands. Coan and Holt-Lunstad both remember attending a conference in the Netherlands in 2015, where a similar gadget was passed around.

The main difference, Holt-Lunstad said, is that the robot she saw at the conference was connected to a corresponding device that could squeeze the hand of a loved one. That robot duo had a greater emphasis on connecting people who couldn't physically be together, she said.

Considering that this invention came up five years ago, people were clearly feeling lonely long before the coronavirus pandemic. But more people are socially isolated now than ever, and the distance can take a toll on physical and mental health.
Advertisement

How loneliness affects your health

Holt-Lunstad said social isolation and feelings of loneliness increase the risk of premature mortality as much as obesity or physical inactivity. Loneliness has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease, stroke, dementia, and Alzheimer's disease.

If you can't afford a hand-holding robot, small gestures like calling a friend or sending them a card can help both the sender and the receiver feel less lonely, Holt-Lunstad said.

Expressing gratitude can establish similar feelings of connection, and taking a walk around the neighborhood can remind you you're part of a community with the added benefits of physical activity.
Advertisement

Read more:

When you're lonely, your brain craves social interaction like it desires food, according to new research People are experiencing 'skin hunger' after months without touching anyone
Advertisement

How to deal with anxiety and loneliness during the coronavirus outbreak

{{}}