This experiment was actually prompted by a real-world event. The lead researcher, Pavel Goldstein, from the University of Colorado Boulder, found that when he held his wife’s hand during labor, her pains eased off.
So, in light of this, he wanted to test it out in the lab. The 22 heterosexual couples enlisted for this study were aged 23 to 32 and had been together for at least a year. While their brain waves were being monitored through the use of electroencephalography caps, they were put through a number of scenarios.
These included sitting together and not touching, sitting in separate rooms, and sitting together while holding hands. Each different scene was repeated while mild heat pain was applied to the arm of the woman.
When the partners were in the same room, whether they were touching or not, the researchers noted some brainwave synchronicity in the alpha mu band – a wavelength associated with focused attention. This sync was strongest when the pair were holding hands and the woman was in pain.
On those occasions where the woman was in pain and the couple couldn’t hold hands, the brainwave syncing decreased. It seems that touch is important in easing pain – just sitting together isn’t enough.
What’s more, when the male partner felt more empathetic towards his partner’s pain, the brain activity syncing increased and the pain was reduced. While it’s not exactly clear why this is the case, it’s possible that when we feel like someone is sharing our pain it helps the brain to manage it better.
This is actually the second paper to be published on this experiment, and it backs up the findings of the first, where touch was shown to reduce pain and put heart rate and breathing rates in sync between partners.
This newly published study adds details on the brain wave monitoring that was carried out during the tests. While the research doesn’t use a huge sample size, it’s large enough to suggest that something is triggered in our biological systems when we hold hands.
Perhaps there's something deep in our wiring that means we seek out companionship and are trained to get in sync with other people, even on a subconscious level. Since the study didn’t look at same-sex relationships or any other type of relationship – such as father and son – we wouldn’t recommend grabbing the hands of random strangers on the bus. But in the delivery room scenario that kick-started this research, some hand-holding could go a long way.