In supercool news, researchers found that holding hands with a romantic partner feels so good for a reason: the two people's brainwaves actually sync up, as well as their breathing and heart rates, which can lead to a person in pain feeling more at ease. This is fascinating news in general, but for partners getting ready to welcome a baby, the study's findings are even more reassuring, because let's be honest, there aren't too many things more painful than childbirth.
The study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Haifa and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, was inspired by one of the researcher's personal experiences. Pavel Goldstein, a postdoctoral pain researcher in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at CU Boulder, noticed that while his wife was in labor with their daughter, his holding her hand actually eased some of the pain she was experiencing.
"I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?" he said.
The study looked at 22 heterosexual couples between the ages of 23 and 32 who had been together for at least a year. A number of two-minute scenarios required the couples to either sit in separate rooms or sit in the same room, touching in one scenario, not touching in the other. The three scenarios were then repeated, but with a twist: the woman was exposed to mild heat-related pain on her arm.
What was found was that the couples experienced synced brainwaves simply from being in each other's presence, and when the woman was in pain, physical touch and increased empathy on the man's part made this "coupling" stronger. Basically, the more synced the couple's brainwaves, the more the woman's overall pain seemed to decrease. However, when she was in pain and her partner wasn't in the room and couldn't get to her, their brainwaves stopped syncing.
"Empathetic touch can make a person feel understood, which in turn — according to previous studies — could activate pain-killing reward mechanisms in the brain."
Although Goldstein was sure to make clear that more studies would need to be done to find how exactly the one partner's pain decreased simply from synced brainwaves and their partner's empathy, he and his coauthors have a theory. "Empathetic touch can make a person feel understood, which in turn — according to previous studies — could activate pain-killing reward mechanisms in the brain," the study reads. Additionally, because same-sex couples and other types of couples weren't studied, the effect hand-holding could have on those relationships is unclear as of now, though Goldstein doesn't think more hand-holding could hurt.
"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."