Holding Hands Is Natural Pain Relief
The touch of a loved one can synchronize brain waves and make you feel better
When you were a little kid, what was the first thing you did when you fell down and scraped your knees? You ran to your mom or dad for a hug. Now, science suggests that loving touch really may have the power to heal, not only emotionally but physically, too.
Research presented at the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago last week confirmed what parents worldwide have always known: Touching and empathizing with a loved one helps relieve feelings of pain. But something mom might not have known is that touch also synchronizes people’s brain waves in a way that may dull the pain.
“When we share the pain of others, basically we’re activating our brain in the same neural system that we activate when we feel firsthand experiences of pain,” says Simone Shamay-Tsoory, a psychology professor at the University of Haifa in Israel, who led the research.
Shamay-Tsoory’s team demonstrated this phenomenon in a series of experiments. First, they tested how the physical touch of either a stranger or a romantic partner affected people’s perception of pain. Holding hands with their partner helped people feel better when they received a heat stimulus to their arm that felt like a mild burn. The more empathy they received from their partner, the less intense they rated the pain. However, touch from a stranger was no better than being alone.
To find out how a loved one’s touch has this benefit, the researchers repeated the experiment using a new type of EEG technology that allowed them to measure brain signals from both partners simultaneously. They discovered that holding hands while one partner was in pain caused the two people’s brain waves to synchronize, with cells firing in the same pattern in the same location. This time, more synchrony between the two brains was related to more pain relief, as well as more empathy.
“We all know that hand-holding is important for social support, but here we show the brain mechanism for this effect,” Shamay-Tsoory says. “We show for the first time that brain waves are synchronized during hand-holding, and this support is effective at pain reduction.”