The warmth of a hand clasping another provides love, security, and reassurance. Besides being a way to show affection, holding hands can be good for your health, too: A new study reports that holding hands with a loved one can provide relief from physical pain. And unlike most studies that begin with complicated science and experiments, this one had a sweet start.
The lead author of the study, Pavel Goldstein, noticed that when he held the hand of his wife during the delivery of his daughter, his wife’s pain subsided. He wanted to know if touch could really decrease pain. When two people hold hands, their breathing, heart rate, and brain waves synchronize. The more someone empathizes with the other person, the more in sync the brain waves become, which alleviates more pain.
To test his hypothesis, Goldstein and his colleagues from the University of Colorado Boulder and University of Haifa analyzed 22 heterosexual couples who were 23 to 32 years old. All of the couples had been together for at least a year. The couples were put through several situations, including: sitting together without touching, sitting together while touching, and sitting in different rooms. They repeated the scenarios again, but this time with “mild” heat put on the woman’s arm. Electroencephalography (EEG) caps measured their brain waves.
Remember the first time Prince Harry and Meghan Markle held hands? It was so sweet:
The EEG data showed that when the couples were just in the same room, the brain waves would start to match up. This occurred specifically with the band that corresponds with focused attention, which is called the alpha mu band. When the couples held hands while the woman was in pain, the brain length synchronization was at the highest. But when the couple wasn’t able to touch while she was in pain, the synchronization seized.
“It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples, and touch brings it back,” Goldstein says. More tests were then performed to measure the man’s amount of empathy toward his partner. The more empathetic he was, the more the couple’s brain waves matched, and the more her pain subsided.
Goldstein says more research needs to be done to further explore this phenomenon, but he and his fellow researchers believe that a touch of empathy can make a person feel more understood, which could be an explanation for the pain relief. “Interpersonal touch may blur the borders between self and other,” the researchers report.
We’re taking it as a lesson: Kind words and gestures might be nice, but it appears that the the power of touch is the most important. “You may express empathy for a partner’s pain, but without touch, it may not be fully communicated.”