Holding Hands Is Natural Pain Relief

The touch of a loved one can synchronize brain waves and make you feel better

WWhen 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.”

One type of brain activity, called alpha waves, particularly stood out. This pattern is associated with the mirror neuron system — cells that fire both when someone performs an action and when they observe someone else performing an action. (For instance, receiving a burn versus watching someone get burned.) The strongest synchronization between the two partners was in the areas of the brain related to mirror neurons, as well as in regions that process touch. Mirror neuron activity is part of the brain’s empathy network, and Shamay-Tsoory speculates that the synchrony in this area indicates both the partners’ pain and efforts to console, especially because the stronger the synchrony, the higher their rating of empathy and pain relief.

“Perhaps there is a blurring between the self and other. Perhaps they share their pain by this synchronizing of brain waves, and the level of pain is reduced.”

In the latest unpublished study, the researchers did the experiment one more time while the couples were in an fMRI scanner. First the partner in pain was scanned while the empathizing partner held their hand, then they swapped positions with the empathizer in the scanner. Both partners showed activity in the inferior parietal lobe, which is where mirror neurons reside in the brain, again suggesting that the synchrony is critically tied to feelings of empathy and pain relief.

“Perhaps there is a blurring between the self and other,” says Shamay-Tsoory. “Perhaps they share their pain by this synchronizing of brain waves, and the level of pain is reduced.”

In the people experiencing pain, holding hands resulted in lower activity in the area of the brain most typically associated with pain, called the insula. Their empathizing partners, however, did not show any activity in that area, meaning that while they related to their partner’s pain, they didn’t actually feel pain.

It’s important to note that the pain signals from the arm — what scientists call nociception — don’t change at all; rather it’s the perception of those pain signals that feels different to people when they are holding their partner’s hand. “I don’t think anybody’s suggesting that nociception itself is necessarily impacted by touch,” says Juulia Suvilehto, a postdoctoral research fellow at Linköping University in Sweden, who was not involved in the research. “But somehow when the message goes to the brain… something happens that makes us perceive it as less painful.”

Suvilehto is skeptical that the synchronization itself is causing the pain relief — she believes it’s most likely correlational rather than causational. She says there are a few other potential explanations for why hand-holding and empathy might dampen those pain signals in the brain. One is the body’s stress response. Under stress, people perceive pain as being higher, but when relaxed, the pain might feel less intense. Similarly, being touched by a loved one reliably lowers stress, so it could lower pain levels, too.

Research also shows that social interactions can synchronize people’s breathing and heart rates, as well as their brain waves. Pain typically speeds up people’s heart rates, but it’s possible that the presence and touch of a partner helps people in pain match the slower, normal rates, keeping them calm and minimizing their perception of pain. Another possibility is that touch, empathy, and brain synchronization are inherently pleasant, activating reward areas of the brain, which have a pain-relieving effect.

Whatever the reason, next time you have to go to the doctor you might want to bring along an empathic friend to hold your hand. Or just ask your mom to come.

Health and science writer • PhD in 🧠 • Words in Scientific American, STAT, The Atlantic, The Guardian • Award-winning Covid-19 coverage for Elemental

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