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Holding someone’s hand is arguably one of the most romantic gestures there is. But hand holding may come with an added bonus, say researchers writing in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It could also help if one of you is in pain – which, for anyone who’s fascinated by how touch can benefit human health, is a mind blower.

This is how the experts think it works. If you hold the hand of someone you love who’s in pain, your breathing, heart rate and brainwave patterns start to synchronise. If you’re the one in pain, the more your partner empathises with you, the more your brainwaves sync. They also think the higher the level of brain synchronisation, the higher the level of pain relief. Whether you call it healing touch or touch-induced analgesia, some experts believe it helps you feel understood. And that, according to previous studies, could have links to painkilling reward mechanisms in the brain.

The researcher who led the study, Pavel Goldstein – a pain researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder – came across this phenomenon by chance. Apparently when his wife was giving birth to their daughter, he discovered she felt less pain whenever he held her hand. So he set about testing this out under lab conditions. Twenty-two heterosexual couples who had been together for at least a year were recruited for the trial, which included subjecting the women to mild heat pain (as far as I know they didn’t try subjecting the men to pain – what can I say?). To cut a long story short, they scanned the volunteers brains and discovered different levels of brainwave synchronicity, the highest being when the woman was in pain and holding hands with her partner. Some level of brainwave synchronicity was found even when both partners were in each other’s presence without touching, which when you think about it is even more fascinating.

This phenomenon has been called interpersonal synchronisation – where people ‘mirror’ those they are with in a physiological sense – and by all accounts it’s becoming quite a hot research subject.

Well if you can lower your blood pressure simply by stroking your dog, it’s not such a huge leap to think you could ease a toothache by holding hands with someone who loves and empathises with you. Is it?

Photo by Anete Lūsiņa on Unsplash