When Lovers Touch, Their Breathing, Heartbeat Syncs, Pain Wanes

It is the first study to explore interpersonal synchronization in the context of pain and lovers touch.

When Lovers Touch, Their Breathing, Heartbeat Syncs, Pain Wanes
Image Credit: University of Colorado

A study by the University of Colorado at Boulder suggests that holding your partners’ hand in pain or pleasant lovers 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 a phenomenon in which individuals begin to physiologically mirror the people they’re with.

Scientists are aware 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 simply in each other’s presence, their cardiorespiratory and brainwaves 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 really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?”

Scientists involved 22 couples for the study under the age of 23 to 32. They then asked to perform a series of tests aimed at mimicking that delivery-room scenario.

Men were assigned for the role of the observer and women for 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 a 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 when she was subjected to pain and he couldn’t touch her, that synchronization found severed. When he was allowed to hold her hand, their rates fell into sync again and her pain decreased.

Goldstein said, “It appears that pain totally 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.