Holding hands can ease pain by syncing brain waves

By ANNA CHEN | March 15, 2018

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Research demonstrates that touching another person can synchronize alpha mu brain waves. 

There is something about the physical touch of a loved one that is comforting during the worst of days and the hardest of times. When words can not ease the pain, a simple hold of the hand can. 

Last week, a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences revealed that there is science behind the comfort of human touch. 

A team of researchers, led by postdoctoral pain researcher Pavel Goldstein from the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at University of Colorado Boulder, recently found that holding hands with a loved one in pain synchronizes breathing, heart rate and even brain waves. The more that two individuals’ brain waves couple, the more it can decrease pain.

Goldstein said the idea for the study came to mind when his wife was giving birth to their daughter. 

When he had held his wife’s hand during labor, it seemed to help with the pain. He wondered if there was a way to test it out in a lab, whether touch can really decrease pain.

To test the inquiry, Goldstein and a group of researchers gathered together 22 heterosexual couples that had been dating for over a year and were between the ages of 23 and 32. 

They subjected the consenting volunteers through a few scenarios during which their brain waves were measured using electroencephalography (EEG) caps. 

Each session lasted two minutes and included situations with the couple sitting together without touching, sitting together holding hands and sitting together in separate rooms. 

Afterward, the same three situations were recreated, this time while the woman in the couple had a source of mild heat pain placed on her arm. 

The results of the study showed that when not touching, couples experienced some brain wave synchronization in the alpha mu band, which is a wavelength generally associated with concentration. 

Touch increased the brain wave coupling slightly when the woman was not in pain, although not significantly.

When the woman was subjected to pain and her partner was not allowed to touch her, the synchronization of their brain waves decreased drastically.

This qualified the results of a previous study using a very similar experiment, which reported that heart rate and respiratory synchronization dropped when the man could not hold the woman’s hand. 

What was new was that Goldstein and his team found that when the woman was in pain, having her partner hold her hand increased brain wave coupling significantly, even more so than when she was not in pain. 

In addition, it seemed that the man’s amount of empathy directly correlated to how much the couple’s brain activity aligned and how much pain was eased by his touch. 

Following the first series of experiments, the researchers tested the male partner’s level of empathy and the results demonstrated that the more empathetic he was to her pain, the more their brain waves aligned. Consequently, the female partner felt less pain.

The study did not look into whether the phenomenon applies to homosexual couples or between people in other types of relationships such as parent and child. It still remains a mystery how synchronizing brain waves through touch can help ease pain. Perhaps it could activate mechanisms in the brain that dull pain receptors.

“[Holding hands] may blur the borders between self and other,” Goldstein and his co-authors wrote in the study.

More research is needed to bridge those gaps in knowledge, but the science shows it is not just imagination — a simple touch from your loved one really can make things better. As Goldstein said, in the age of technology and minimal physical interactions, don’t underestimate the power of a simple handhold.

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