Do you suffer from regular pain or are you going to have a one-time medical procedure that promises discomfort? Ask a partner to be there and hold your hand: it is likely that when a loved one touches us, our brain waves are synchronized and we feel better as a result.
Think back to your childhood. What did you do when you fell and hurt your knee? Most likely, they rushed to mom or dad to hug you. Scientists believe that the touch of a loved one can really heal, not only emotionally, but also physically.
Neuroscience has now reached the point that moms around the world have always intuitively felt: touch and empathy helps relieve pain. What the moms didn’t know is that touch synchronizes brain waves and that this is what most likely leads to pain relief.
“When someone else shares their pain with us, the same processes are triggered in our brain as if we ourselves are in pain,” explains Simone Shamai-Tsuri, a psychologist and professor at the University of Haifa.
Simone and her team confirmed this phenomenon by conducting a series of experiments. First, they tested how physical contact with a stranger or romantic partner affects the perception of pain. The pain factor was caused by heat exposure, which felt like a small burn on the arm. If the subjects at that moment held hands with a partner, unpleasant sensations were more easily tolerated. And the more the partner sympathized with them, the weaker they assessed the pain. But the touch of a stranger did not give such an effect.
To understand how and why this phenomenon works, the scientists used a new electroencephalogram technology that allowed them to simultaneously measure signals in the brains of the subjects and their partners. They found that when partners hold hands and one of them is in pain, their brain signals synchronize: the same cells in the same areas light up.
“We have known for a long time that holding the hand of another is an important element of social support, but now we finally understand what the nature of this effect is,” says Shamai-Tsuri.
In order to explain, let’s remember mirror neurons – brain cells that are excited both when we ourselves do something and when we only observe how another performs this action (in this case, we ourselves get a small burn or see how partner gets it). The strongest synchronization was observed precisely in the area of the brain consistent with the behavior of mirror neurons, as well as in those where signals about physical contact arrive.
Social interactions can synchronize breathing and heart rate
“Perhaps at such moments the boundaries between us and the other are blurred,” suggests Shamai-Tsuri. “A person literally shares his pain with us, and we take away part of it.”
Another series of experiments was carried out using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging). First, a tomogram was made for the partner who was in pain, and the loved one held his hand and sympathized. Then they scanned the brain of a sympathizer. In both cases, activity was found in the lower parietal lobe: the area where mirror neurons are located.
Partners who experienced pain and who were held by the hand also had reduced activity in the insula, the part of the cerebral cortex responsible, among other things, for experiencing pain. Their partners did not experience any changes in this area, since they did not physically experience pain.
At the same time, it is important to understand that the pain signals themselves (scientists call this painful excitation of nerve fibers) did not change – only the sensations of the subjects changed. “Both the strength of the impact and the strength of the pain remain the same, but when the “message” enters the brain, something happens that makes us perceive the sensations as less painful.”
Not all scientists agree with the conclusions reached by the Shamai-Tsuri research team. Thus, the Swedish researcher Julia Suvilehto believes that we can talk more about correlation than about causation. According to her, the observed effect may have other explanations. One of them is the body’s response to stress. When we are stressed, the pain seems to be stronger than when we relax, which means that when a partner takes our hand, we calm down – and now we don’t hurt so much.
Research also shows that social interactions can synchronize our breathing and heart rate, but perhaps again because being around a loved one calms us down. Or maybe because touch and empathy in themselves are pleasant and activate areas of the brain that give a “pain-relieving” effect.
Whatever the explanation, the next time you go to the doctor, ask your partner to keep you company. Or mom, like in the good old days.