Watching couples strolling the mall or sitting side-by-side holding hands is such a sweet sight. That gesture, that touch says it all- “I care”. But new research shows it can go far beyond just a touch.
Social behavior is a deeply ingrained, human behavior. Communal activities such as dancing and singing enhance our ability to empathize. Through them we feel closer and more connected to others. But add romance and touching to the mix and research has proven the old adage, we truly do have two hearts beating as one. But not just our heart rate and respiration, our brains actually sync up as well.
When it comes to pain, healing and relief may really be in the palm of your hand.
For the first time actual proof was found showing the benefits that holding hands with a loved one could offer. It makes sense. We all know how our mother’s touch could calm us down instantly, making us feel safe and protected. Or a loved one’s grip when we are about to hear bad news. It’s because pain and touch signals eventually end up in the same place. They’re generated somewhere in the body first, then sent to the spinal cord and up to the brain. Here they split into two areas. The somatosensory cortex gives us the facts- the location of the pain, as well as the type and degree of pain we are experiencing. The other side is the posterior insula. Here the emotional component is assessed. Since the posterior insula receives signals from all areas of the brain, the perception of pain can be affected by other inputs and experiences that can block or diminish what it’s receiving.
A classic example is someone who is shot but in extraordinary situations may not even notice at the time, continuing to fight as though unharmed. It’s not until everything is over they realize they’ve been hurt. Others may be paralyzed instead. Emotional or attentional circumstances can diminish or heighten pain.
Pain is made up of two experiences at the same time. While the physical representation can’t be changed by medications, meditation, exercise, distraction, or hugs, the emotional component can be. In this study hand holding was evaluated, and it too helped to soothe and blunt the pain.
We communicate our feelings in the way we touch. A caress, long hug, desire to touch or obvious withdrawal. Sadness, pain, hurt, anguish is immediately transmitted. The most fascinating aspect of this study was proof loving couples actually sync up their brain activity when they hold hands. This phenomena is called “interpersonal synchronization“. It was the first time “brain-to-brain coupling” had been documented as a means of alleviating pain through human contact.
It looked at couples, while monitoring their brainwaves via an EEG machine, as the female was experiencing a mild heat pain to her arm. During all scenarios- sitting in separate rooms, sitting together without touching and then holding hands- their brain waves were in sync whenever both focused their attention on the same thing, even a movie. But the wavelength synced the most when the partner’s empathy spiked as he felt his partner experience pain when they held hands. When she was in pain and he couldn’t touch her, the coupling of their brainwaves diminished and their heart rate and respiratory synchronization disappeared. Pain disrupted this bond, touch brought it back. And the more empathetic he was to her pain, while holding hands, the more their brains synced and the less her pain.
David linden, PhD, editor of Think Tank: 40 Neuroscientists Explore the Biological Roots of Human Experience compares it to,
“Dangling a microphone over the center of a football stadium from a helicopter and hearing the roar of the crowd. It’s like all the individual neurons are different people in the stadium, and they’re each doing and saying their own thing and then it gets summed together,” he explained. “It doesn’t mean they are thinking or feeling the same thing. When it comes to the hand-holding in the study,” he says “that the feelings of being soothed and loved with touch can blunt pain a little in the same way that people control pain with breathing exercises or meditative methods. They can’t eliminate the pain, but they can take the edge off.”
But it’s amazing data just confirms what we all know to be true- empathy, love and connecting can calm a person and activate mechanisms in the brain that decrease pain. Too often we use technology as a way to communicate, forgetting how important human contact is to our mental well being. Especially after the pandemic forced even more isolation. Watching a loved one who’s hurting is painful. All we want to do is ease their anguish. Now we know for a fact, holding their hand and letting them know you’re there for them does just that.
Clearly more investigation is needed to define how we can set off similar pain inhibiting responses. We all know how much a smile or pat on the back can brighten our day. As studies have already shown just going out with friends can be as powerful a pain reliever as morphine. Add to that holding hands or a hug, being there for each other can be as uplifting as one hurtful comment can be deflating. Showing we care, spreading good thoughts can’t help but make everyone feel better, especially those in pain.
So next time you hurt, or see someone else in pain, remember empathy, in any form, can heal. But from someone you love it can be empowering as well.