Holding Hands Has An Unexpected Effect On Your Brain

Sure, holding a loved one's hand makes you happy — but that's no simple feel-good effect. When romantic partners hold hands, your brainwaves sync, and you actually can ease your partner's pain, according to researchers from the University of Colorado and the University of Haifa (via Healthline). 

In the study, published at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the researchers said they sought to understand more about why social touch helps with analgesia, or the ability to feel pain. Previous scientific studies have learned that tactile stimulation can interrupt pain input at the spinal cord. Other research has demonstrated that pain and empathy for pain both activate the same parts of the brain, "triggering emotional resonance in the observer," the researchers said.

For the study, the researchers examined 22 heterosexual couples — including four married couples — between ages 23 and 32 in two-minute scenarios: sitting in separate rooms, sitting together without touching, and sitting together holding hands. The researchers applied mild heat (about 109 degrees Fahrenheit to 116 degrees Fahrenheit) with a thermode to one partner's forearm three times for seven seconds each. They also monitored both partners' brainwaves with electroencephalography (EEG) caps.

When the couples were in the same room, their brainwaves synchronized, the researchers found. Their brainwaves synched most when they held hands while the one partner received the heat stimuli. In addition, the more empathetic the observer was, the less pain the partner felt.

Holding hands can ease pain much like mediation and breathing exercises

While researchers still don't understand the mechanism behind this, they noted that touch is powerful. "[I]ncreasing evidence shows that touch has a critical social value and plays an important role in interpersonal communication, affecting our perception and well-being," the study said. "Indeed, empathy — our ability to understand someone else's emotional experience or state — plays a key role in social touch and pain reduction."

Although synching your brain with your partner's sounds like science fiction, David Linden, Ph.D., editor of Think Tank: 40 Neuroscientists Explore the Biological Roots of Human Experience, explained that it's just science. EEGs measure stimulation in the brain. It's not as if the couples thought or felt the same thing; they just reacted to a stimulus, similar to dangling a microphone from a helicopter to capture the roar of a crowd, he told Healthline.

The findings not only sound sweet but are reasonable considering what scientists understand about pain perception, he added. Holding hands can soothe a loved one's pain in the same way as meditative or breathing exercises. "Positive social touch has a special emotional flavor to it," Linden told Healthline. "These things have their limits, though. They can't eliminate the pain, but they can take the edge off."