We’ve all witnessed that scene in a romantic drama in which someone sitting on a hospital bed wraps their hand around the hand of their sick beloved. Even if they’re virtually comatose or hooked up to a breathing machine, you can see how much this one simple gesture is easing their physical pain. Perhaps you’ve even experienced this almost miraculous relief yourself when someone you love has taken your hand in theirs.
It might seem like the reason this feels so good is just because it’s a silent show of solidarity when you’re at your most vulnerable. But, according to science, there’s actually a lot more to it than that.
A new study that was published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that when romantic partners hold hands, their breathing, heart rate, and even brain wave patterns actually sync up. According to pain researchers, the more those brain waves synchronize, the more the pain that either of them feel subsides.
Pavel Goldstein, a postdoctoral pain researcher in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at CU Boulder, came up with the idea for the study after he noticed that holding his wife’s hand while she was giving birth to their daughter seemed to significantly ease her labor pains.
He and his colleagues at the University of Haifa recruited 22 heterosexual couples between the ages of 23 and 32 who had been together for at least a year and measured their brain activity in scenarios in which they were holding hands, not holding hands, sitting together, sitting in separate rooms, and so forth. They then repeated the same scenarios, but subjected the woman to some mild pain in the form of heat in her arm. They found that when the man touched his significant other in her moment of pain, their brain waves synchronized, and the syncing was especially strong when they were holding hands.
They also found that the more empathetic the man was to his partner’s pain, the more their brain waves synched up, and the more her pain subsided.
“It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples and touch brings it back,” Goldstein said in the university newsletter.
Further research needs to be done in order to conclude if the same results would occur with same-sex couples and non-romantic relationships, but, for now, the study has significant implications for today’s data-driven world.
“We have developed a lot of ways to communicate in the modern world and we have fewer physical interactions,” Goldstein said. “This paper illustrates the power and importance of human touch.”
For more advice on how to show your partner how much they mean to you, read 50 Easy Ways to Be a (Much) More Romantic Man.
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