The act of holding hands may provide more than just emotional comfort, new research shows. According to researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder and the University of Haifa in Israel, holding hands with those we love can sync brainwave patterns, heart rates, and breathing.
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), also reports that the more empathetic a person is for their loved one in pain, the more likely their brainwaves will fall into sync and reduce that pain. This curious phenomenon is known as interpersonal synchronization, which also occurs when people physiologically mirror those they share a bond with.
“We have developed a lot of ways to communicate in the modern world and we have fewer physical interactions,” said Pavel Goldstein, the lead author of the study at UC Boulder. “This paper illustrates the power and importance of human touch.”
Although studies related to interpersonal synchronization have been conducted in the past, this is the first study to explore the phenomenon in the context of pain. Goldstein says the study could offer greater insights into how brain-to-brain coupling could provide healing through touch.
According to Medical News Today, the study involved 22 heterosexual couples who had been together for one year. The couples, aged 23 to 32, underwent a series of two-minute scenarios that included sitting together without touching, sitting together while holding hands, and sitting in different rooms.
In the experiment, the couples each wore electroencephalography (EEG) caps to measure their brainwave activity while the women were subjected to mild heat pain. The study found that brainwave synchronicity increased when the couples were near each other and diminished when the couples were apart. Synchronicity increased the most when the couples were holding hands.
The study correlates with previous findings in similar experiments where couples’ heart rates and respiratory systems would synchronize when touching. Interpersonal synchronization has been found to be one of the reasons why sleeping with a partner can be beneficial for one’s health. In fact, co-sleeping may improve one’s chances of receiving the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep.
Further tests showed that the greater the empathy levels between the couples, the greater they were able to relieve their partner’s pain. Goldstein and his team say this may be due to the emotional effects of empathetic touch.
Empathetic touch, Goldstein said, can make a partner feel understood by their loved one. This feeling of understanding can activate the chemicals in the brain that provide pain-killing rewards.
These findings could be incredibly beneficial for future research. Up to 80% of the American population will experience some form of back pain in their lifetime and so the fact that touch could help to reduce this pain is valuable information.
What’s more, it could potentially open new doors to studies in pain medication to fight back against the opioid epidemic. As many as four out of five people addicted to heroin report that their addiction began with prescription painkillers. By reducing the need for painkillers, there could potentially be a reduced risk of addiction.
While the study didn’t include LGBTQ couples, familial relationships, or subject the men to mild heat pain, the researchers say the takeaway from the experiment thus far is that there’s a great deal of power in human touch. “You may express empathy for a partner’s pain,” said Goldstein, “but without touch, it may not be fully communicated.”