According to a small study of heterosexual couples conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, when a man holds the hand of his partner in pain, their heart rates and breathing patterns match up — and her pain subsides.
The research, which was published in the journal Scientific Reports on June 12, aimed to expand the idea of “interpersonal synchronization,” the process of people physiologically falling into sync, whether it’s copying each other’s mannerisms during conversation or breathing in similar patterns while watching a movie together. Until now, scientists didn’t know whether the same process could affect people’s pain levels.
“I came up with this idea four years ago while my wife was in childbirth with our daughter,” study author Pavel Goldstein, of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at CU Boulder, tells Yahoo Beauty. “Men don’t really know what to do in the delivery room, and I wanted to help my wife.” When he grabbed her hand, she seemed to feel better.
Per a press release for the study, scientists rounded up 22 long-term couples ages 23 to 32 and divided them into three groups: those who sat together without touching, sat together and held hands, and sat in different rooms. Then researchers administered pain to the women in the form of heat on their arm for two minutes. Results showed that couples who sat together synced up physiologically, but the women who held their partner’s hand felt less pain.
How does physical touch act as a painkiller? It all comes down to empathy, the ability to truly understand what another person is feeling. “Holding hands communicates empathy — it says ‘I’m present and with you,’” says Goldstein.
More specifically, synchronization may play a role in reducing pain by influencing an area of the brain called the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with pain perception, empathy, and heart and respiratory function, according to the press release.
Goldstein and his fellow researchers aren’t sure yet whether the same experiment would work if men were the ones in pain. And would nonheterosexual couples reap the same benefits? Goldstein says more research is needed.
However, it’s clear that even small, kind gestures can have big payoffs.
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