BOULDER, Colo. — Is love on its own strong enough to heal someone’s pain? A new study finds that when a man holds the hand of his ailing female partner, their heart and respiratory rates sync and the pain she feels weakens.
Love is powerful. Prior research has proven how it affects our minds and bodies: we subconsciously follow the same stride of a lover’s footsteps when walking; when we stare into our lover’s eyes, our heartbeats sync as one; and when we are simply in our lover’s presence, our cardiorespiratory and brainwave patterns sync up. Is there any other force strong enough to do that?
Now researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder discovered that contact between two lovers can relieve one’s agony.
“The more empathic the partner and the stronger the analgesic effect, the higher the synchronization between the two when they are touching,” says lead author Pavel Goldstein, a postdoctoral pain researcher, in a university news release.
The study is the most recent in “interpersonal synchronization” research, the concept that we begin to physiologically mirror the people we’re with – such as the theory that we adjust our posture to mirror a friend we’re talking to. This concept is important for the development of social behavior.
It is also the first study to explore interpersonal synchronization through pain and touch.
What was the spark behind this brilliant exploration of pain and touch? It was Goldstein’s experience of witnessing the birth of his daughter, who is now four.
“My wife was in pain, and all I could think was, ‘What can I do to help her?’ I reached for her hand and it seemed to help,” he reminisces. “I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?”
Goldstein gathered 22 long-term heterosexual couples, ages 23 to 32, and observed them through a series of tests that replicated that delivery-room picture.
Women acted as the pain target while men were the observers of their pain. Their heart and breathing rates were measured in three ways: sitting without touching; sitting while holding hands; or sitting in separate rooms. Then, the couples repeated all three sittings as the women were subjected to a mild heat pain on their forearm for 2 minutes.
As previous studies have told us, couples sync physiologically by simply sitting together (as was observed in this study). But the astonishing finding was that when the woman was in pain and her partner didn’t touch her, their synchronization was disconnected. Their rates fell into sync again and her pain lessened once her partner allowed to hold her hand again.
In Goldstein’s previous research and tests, he found that the more empathy from the man decreased the woman’s pain even more during touch.
The simple, yet powerful finding: Pain destroyed interpersonal synchronization while touch brought it back.
Goldstein supposes that interpersonal synchronization possibly affects a brain region that has been connected with decision-making, social interactions, pain perception and empathy. It’s called the anterior cingulate cortex.
The study authors hope that future research will explore this concept that touch can weaken pain.
“It could be that touch is a tool for communicating empathy, resulting in an analgesic, or pain-killing, effect,” adds Goldstein.
It may sound cliché, but: love conquers all. More affection, less separation.
The study’s findings were published in June in the journal Scientific Reports.