The health value of human touch and social relationships has been romanticized for centuries. New research finds that women under stress who hold their husbands’ hands show signs of immediate relief, which can clearly be seen on their brain scans.
A MRI provided evidence that hand-holding with a spouse can decrease the brain’s response to threat and dampen the emotional component of the brain’s pain processing circuits. Women who rated their marriage as very satisfying displayed the greatest benefit.
“This is the first study of the neurological reactions to human touch in a threatening situation, and the first study to measure how the brain facilitates the health-enhancing properties of close social relationships,” says Dr. James A. Coan, a University of Virginia neuroscientist and author of the study.
The research is published in the December 2006 issue of the journal Psychological Science.
The study involved several couples who rated themselves as highly satisfied with their marriages. Coan and colleagues designed a functional MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) study in which 16 married women were subjected to the threat of a very mild electric shock while they by turns held their husband’s hand, the hand of a stranger (male) or no hand at all.
The MRI was able to show how these women’s brains responded to this handholding while in a threatening situation.
The results showed a large decrease in the brain response to threat as a function of spouse handholding, and a limited decrease in this response as a function of stranger handholding.
Moreover, spouse handholding effects varied as a function of marital quality, with women in the very highest quality marriages benefiting from a very powerful decrease in threat-related brain activity, including a strong decrease in the emotional (affective) component of the brain’s pain processing circuits.
Source: Blackwell Publishing