If you haven’t got time for the pain, grab a loved one’s hand. When two people hold hands, their heart rate, breathing and brainwaves all synchronize, new research has found.
It can also produce a pain-easing effect: The more empathy someone feels for a partner in pain, the more their brainwaves mesh. As brainwaves harmonize, pain diminishes.
A University of Colorado researcher devised the experiments that led to the findings after grabbing his wife’s hand during childbirth. When he did, her pain eased. He took his interest in the power of empathetic touch from her bedside to the lab.
Scientific collaborators in Israel recruited several dozen couples who had been together at least a year. After being fitted with equipment to measure brainwaves, they were given a series of two-minute scenarios. They involved sitting together but not touching, sitting together while holding hands and sitting in separate rooms. The scenarios were then repeated while the women were subjected to mild heat pain on the arm.
Being in each other’s presence produced brainwave synchronicity. The couples’ brainwaves meshed even more when the woman was in pain. Their paired brainwaves diminished when the woman was in pain, but the couple couldn’t touch.
So, what does it mean? Pain interrupts the link between couples and touching revives that connection, the researchers concluded. As for how the coupling of brain activity with an empathetic partner kills pain, the researchers believe it can make someone feel understood. That, in turn, may activate pain-killing mechanisms in the brain.
Saying you feel someone’s pain is a kind gesture, but an empathetic touch may do even more good.