A study by the University of Colorado at Boulder suggests that holding your partners’ hand in pain or pleasant lover touch could sync their heart and respiratory rates. It is the first study to explore interpersonal synchronization in the context of pain and lovers’ touch.
Lead author Pavel Goldstein said, “The more empathic the partner and the stronger the analgesic effect, the higher the synchronization between the two when they are touching.”
It is the latest evidence in a growing body of research on interpersonal synchronization. Interpersonal Synchronization is when individuals begin to mirror the people they’re with physiologically.
Scientists know that people subconsciously sync their footsteps with the person they’re walking with or adjust their posture to mirror a friend’s during the conversation. Even various studies have shown that when people watch an emotional movie or sing together, their heart rates and respiratory rhythms synchronize. When romantic couples are in each other’s presence, their cardiorespiratory and brainwave patterns sync up.
Goldstein came up with the idea after witnessing the birth of his daughter. He said, “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. I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?”
Scientists involved 22 couples for the study under the age of 23 to 32. They were then asked to perform a series of tests to mimic that delivery-room scenario.
Men were assigned to the observer role and women to pain target. As instruments measured their heart and breathing rates, they: 1. sat together, not touching, 2. sat together holding hands, or 3. sat in separate rooms. Then they repeated all three scenarios as the woman was subjected to mild heat pain on her forearm for 2 minutes.
In previous trials, the study showed couples synced physiologically to some degree just sitting together. But that synchronization was severed when she was subjected to pain, and he couldn’t touch her. When he was allowed to hold her hand, their rates fell into sync again, and her pain decreased.
Goldstein said, “It appears that pain interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples. Touch brings it back.”
Meanwhile, the more empathy the man showed for the woman, the more her pain subsided during touch. The more physiologically synchronized they were, the less pain she felt.
“It could be that touch is a tool for communicating empathy, resulting in an analgesic, or pain-killing, effect,” he added.