S u m m a r y :
With a lover’s magical touch, pain subsides as the hearts and breathing of both partners synchronise, shows a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports.
Researchers from Colorado University have discovered a new way to ease one’s pain—an empathetic lover’s touch. It works through a phenomenon called “interpersonal synchronization”: holding a partner’s hand while one feels pain will lead to heart and breathing rates to sync, thereby leading to relief. The new study documents the analgesic touch of an empathetic partner holding the hands of his better-half as the latter ‘gives birth’.
“Our Hearts Beat As One”
Interpersonal synchronization constitutes a field of research that investigates the experience whereby individuals mirror other individuals in whose company they are; it is characterised by physiological coordination. An example would be how people unintentionally sync their footsteps with someone with whom they are walking. You must have felt this hundreds of times before: for instance, you might have mirrored a friend’s posture as you speak to him. Latest studies have added to the list: people watching emotional movies together will often have their heart and breathing rates synchronised. This will also happen when two people are singing together.
The synchronisation also goes beyond what the eyes can see: brainwaves have been found to harmonise in leaders and followers when they enjoy healthy interactions. Romantic couples are no exception: when they are in each other’s presence, their cardiorespiratory and brainwave patterns fall into harmony as well.
The new findings adds to a growing body of studies analysing this surreal occurrence.
Supporting Wife During Labour
The new research entails examining interpersonal synchronization, and its effect on pain and touch. Lead author Pavel Goldstein came up with the idea of investigating this potential aspect of interpersonal synchrony following the experience of his daughter’s birth.
“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,” narrates Goldstein. “I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?”
Couples In Delivery-Room Scenario
22 long-term heterosexual couples were involved in the study, and they were made to take several tests whereby the scenario of giving birth was reproduced. The women were the pain targets while the men were the observers. Their heart and breathing rates were measured in three situations:
- When they sat together without touching.
- When they sat together while holding hands.
- When they sat in separate rooms.
This series of situations were repeated whereby the woman endured a mild heat pain on her forearm for 2 minutes.
The results show that sitting together is linked with some degree of physiological synchrony. When the woman was subjected to pain without her partner by her side, the synchronisation was cut off. When the same happened with him holding her hands, the synchronisation happened again, and her pain was eased.
“It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples,” says Goldstein. “Touch brings it back.”
More Empathy, More Relief from Pain
The empathetic nature of the partner has a great influence on the strength of the analgesic effect: the more empathetic he is, the more does his partner feel relief from her pain, says Goldstein. Furthermore, the more physiologically synchronized they felt, the less pain did the woman experience.
Goldstein thinks that touch might be a means to communicate empathy, turning it into a pain-killer.
How does this work? Further research will need to be done to find out how does touch ease pain. Meanwhile, Goldstein advises fathers to hold their partner’s hands in the delivery room.