It's instinctual to look for a hand to hold when you're in pain — a kind pat on the back can seemingly have magical healing powers. While you may have believed that touch was just for comfort and support, science now suggests that it can actually heal physical pain, as well.
During the annual Society for Neuroscience meeting, a study led by Simone Shamay-Tsoory, a psychology professor at the University of Haifa in Israel revealed that a loving touch synchronizes people's brain waves, which in return may ease pain.
Shamay-Tsoory and his team first investigated how a stranger's physical touch compared to a romantic partner's touch. Individuals who experienced a heat stimulus rated their pain lower when they received empathy from their partner, but felt no positive effect when touched by a stranger.
To further understand the benefits of a loved one's touch, the experiment was repeated with EEG technology that "examines brain-to-brain coupling during pain with interpersonal touch and tests the involvement of interbrain synchrony in pain alleviation."
The result: When one individual was in pain while holding their partner's hand, both of their brains synched up with cells moving in the same pattern and location.
Since shared neural networks are activated in both the target and the observer, the study suggests that brain-to-brain coupling takes place during empathy for pain.
The strongest brain synchronization occurred in the areas that process touch and a part of the empathy network called the mirror neuron system. Both a person's pain and their partner's desire to comfort causes brain-to-brain coupling — the more powerful the synchrony, the more effective the empathy and pain relief. So, the next time a friend or loved one is going through a tough moment, don't resist the urge for a hug or hand squeeze.
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