Holding hands is one of the simplest gestures loved ones make to each other.
While watching a movie, strolling down the street or just to let them know you’re there, it’s a small act that can bring a lot of comfort and joy.
But there’s more to it.
New research from the University of Colorado at Boulder and the University of Haifa, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in February, found that holding hands actually causes partners’ brain waves to sync up.
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Plus, if one of those partners was in pain, beginning to hold hands actually caused the pain to start going away.
“We have developed a lot of ways to communicate in the modern world and we have fewer physical interactions,” said lead author Pavel Goldstein, a postdoctoral pain researcher at CU Boulder, in a release. “This paper illustrates the power and importance of human touch.”
To perform the study, scientists asked 22 straight couples between the ages of 23 and 32 who had been together for at least one year to sit through a series of scenarios.
Wearing electroencephalography (EEG) caps to measure their brainwave activity, the couples sat together without touching, sat together holding hands and sat in totally different rooms.
Then they did the same thing, but while the woman subjected to a mild, harmless heat pain on her arm.
Just being in the same room seemed to cause certain brain waves to sync up, the scientists say, but if the two partners held hands, the brain waves began matching up the most.
If one of the partners was in pain, however, the waves stopped syncing up – that is, until they began to hold hands again.
“It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples and touch brings it back,” Goldstein said in the release. “You may express empathy for a partner’s pain, but without touch it may not be fully communicated.”
The study did not explore whether the same effect would occur with same-sex couples or in other kinds of relationships.
The study backs up previous research that found hand-holding led the partner’s heart rates to sync up – and to sync up even more if one partner was in pain.
The reason this happens is not clear, and scientists say more research is needed to find some specific causes. But Goldstein has some ideas.
“Interpersonal touch may blur the borders between self and other,” he wrote, adding that touch can make a person feel understood, which causes a hit of chemicals in the brain that can dull pain.