How much touch do you have in your relationship?
An interesting study from the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Haifa found that when you hold hands with a loved one in pain, your breathing and heart rate synchronise with theirs and your brain wave patterns will couple. This study was recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
The researchers also discovered that the more empathy a comforting partner feels for their partner in pain, the more their brainwaves sync up. And the more those brain waves sync, the more the pain abates. This is something humans have known since probably the beginning of our species, but it’s now been confirmed by modern science.
“We have developed a lot of ways to communicate in the modern world and we have fewer physical interactions,” said the study’s lead author, Pavel Goldstein. “This paper illustrates the power and importance of human touch.”
This study is part of a larger body of research into “interpersonal synchronisation”—in essence, how people physiologically mirror the people they are with. This one is the first to look at brain wave synchronisation as it relates to pain, and it offers new insight into the role brain-to-brain coupling may play in touch-induced analgesia—healing touch.
Goldstein thought up the experiment after the delivery of his daughter. He found that when he held his wife’s hand during labour it eased her pain. “I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?”
How the study was conducted and what they found
Goldstein and his team at the University of Haifa studied 22 heterosexual couples, age 23 to 32, who had been together for at least one year. The team put them through several short scenarios as electroencephalography (EEG) caps measured their brainwave activity. The scenarios: sitting together not touching; sitting together holding hands, and sitting in separate rooms. Then the scenarios were replayed but the woman was subjected to mild heat pain on her arm.
Just being in each other’s presence, with or without touch, led to some brain wave synchronicity in the alpha mu band, a wavelength associated with focused attention. If the couple held hands while the woman was in pain, the coupling increased the most. And when she was in pain and he couldn’t touch her, the coupling of their brain waves diminished.
This lined up with a previously published paper from the same experiment that found heart rate and respiratory synchronisation disappeared when the male partner couldn’t hold the woman’s hand to ease her pain.
“It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronisation between couples and touch brings it back,” says Goldstein. This is a beautiful affirmation of how humans can help each other at the most basic level—touch, empathy, shared experience. “You may express empathy for a partner’s pain, but without touch, it may not be fully communicated,” he said.
Why holding hands synchronises human brainwaves
Further tests of the male partner’s level of empathy showed that the more empathetic he was to her pain, the more their brain activity synced. The more their brains synchronised, the more her pain abated. And how does this work, exactly?
The researchers can’t say for sure yet, but Goldstein and his co-authors offer a few possible explanations. Empathetic touch can make a person feel understood, which may activate pain-killing reward mechanisms in the brain.
This research backs up what most of us know already about the power of touch – touching your partner can have a soothing effect on pain and hurt.
“Interpersonal touch may blur the borders between self and other,” the researchers wrote. Next time your partner starts feeling pain, maybe hold their hand.
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Since 2003, Clinton Power has helped thousands of couples and individuals as a counsellor and psychotherapist in private practice in Sydney and online in Australia. Clinton regularly comments in the media on issues of relationships and has appeared on Channel 7, The Sydney Morning Herald, and ABC Radio. Clinton’s eBook, 31 Days to Build a Better Relationship is available through his website or Amazon. Click here to take Clinton’s relationship checkup quiz to find out how well you know your partner.