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The Best Natural Pain Reliever Only Love Can Buy

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Handholding coupled with empathy relieves pain

Here's how to have that healing touch and what it can do for others.


A new study shows that in a time of texting, social media and the internet where we all reach out and digitally touch one another through our electronic gadgets, using our digits to reach to one another through physical touch can provide us with healing powers for those in pain.

The study's power of touch finding by researchers from CU Boulder and the University of Haifa shows that the more empathy a person has for another coupled with physical handholding, results in both parties' brainwaves falling into sync along with relief pain for the one in need of comfort. The researchers refer to this as a phenomenon as "interpersonal synchronization," in which people physiologically mirror the people they are with.

"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 in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at CU Boulder. "This paper illustrates the power and importance of human touch."

In the study, 22 heterosexual couples ranging in age from 23 to 32 who had been together for at least one year were fitted with electroencephalography (EEG) caps to measure their brainwave activity while under a variety of scenarios in which the couple sat together but were not touching; sitting together holding hands; and sitting in separate rooms. In the scenarios, the female participants were subjected to mild heat pain on an arm while brainwave patterns of both she and her partner were monitored.

What the study found was that:

1. Merely being in each other's presence, with or without touch, was associated with some brain wave synchronicity in the alpha mu band--a wavelength associated with focused attention.

2. If the couple held hands while the women was in pain, the brainwave synchronicity increased the most.

3. When the woman was in pain and the man was not touching her, the coupling of their brain waves diminished.

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4. Subsequent tests of the male partner's level of empathy revealed that the more empathetic he was to her pain the more their brain activity synced; The more synchronized their brains, the more the woman's pain subsided.

"It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples and touch brings it back," says Goldstein.

According to a news release from Colorado University, Boulder, the authors of the study hypothesize that empathy with touch added, might be making a person in pain feel understood, which in turn could be activating pain-killing reward mechanisms in the brain.

"Interpersonal touch may blur the borders between self and other," the researchers wrote.

"You may express empathy for a partner's pain, but without touch it may not be fully communicated," stated Goldstein.

For more about empathy and health, here is an informative answer about "Does bedside manner make a difference in patient outcome?"


CU Boulder Today news "Just the two of us: Holding hands can ease pain, sync brainwaves"

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published ahead of print February 26, 2018; "Brain-to-brain coupling during handholding is associated with pain reduction" Pavel Goldstein et al.

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