If your romantic partner is in pain, hold his or her hand. This simple act of love will sync your breathing, heart rates, and brain wave patterns, which will ultimately help ease your partner’s pain, according to researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder and the University of Haifa in Israel.
The new findings, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), also show that the more empathy the comforting partner feels for the partner in pain, the more their brainwaves fall into sync. And the more those brain waves sync, the more the pain is reduced.
“We have developed a lot of ways to communicate in the modern world and we have fewer physical interactions,” said lead author Pavel Goldstein, a postdoctoral pain researcher in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at University of Colorado, Boulder. “This paper illustrates the power and importance of human touch.”
The study adds to a growing body of research investigating a phenomenon known as “interpersonal synchronization,” in which people physiologically mirror the people they are with. It is the first to explore brain wave synchronization in the context of pain, and offers new insights into the role that brain-to-brain coupling may play in touch-induced analgesia, or healing touch.
Goldstein pioneered the study after, during the delivery of his daughter, he found that when he held his wife’s hand, it eased her pain.
“I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?” he said.
The study involved 22 heterosexual couples, aged 23 to 32 who had been partners for at least one year. The couples experienced several two-minute scenarios as electroencephalography (EEG) caps measured their brain wave activity.
The scenarios included sitting together not touching; sitting together holding hands; and sitting in separate rooms. Then they repeated the scenarios as the woman was subjected to mild heat pain on her arm.
Simply being near each other, with or without touch, was associated with some brain wave synchronicity in the alpha mu band, a wavelength associated with focused attention. If they held hands while she was in pain, the syncing activity increased the most.
The study also found that when the woman was in pain and the man couldn’t touch her, the coupling of their brain waves diminished. This matched the findings from previous research of the same experiment which found that heart rate and respiratory synchronization disappeared when the male study participant couldn’t hold her hand to ease her pain.
“It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples and touch brings it back,” Goldstein said.
Additional tests of the man’s empathy levels found that the more empathetic he was to her pain the more their brain activity synced. The more synchronized their brains, the more her pain subsided.
How exactly could the syncing of brain activity with an empathetic partner relieve pain? More research is needed to find out, stressed Goldstein. But he and his co-authors offer a few possible explanations: Empathetic touch can make a person feel understood, which in turn, according to previous studies, could activate pain-killing reward mechanisms in the brain.
“Interpersonal touch may blur the borders between self and other,” the researchers wrote.
This particular study did not look at same-sex couples or other kinds of relationships. But the takeaway for now is to not underestimate the power of a hand-hold, said Pavel.
“You may express empathy for a partner’s pain, but without touch it may not be fully communicated,” he said.