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Study: When Lovers Touch, Heartbeats Literally Sync, Pain Diminishes

Update Date: Jun 23, 2017 06:23 PM EDT

Plato once said, "Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet."

Perhaps if we update Plato's words to the vernacular of our scientific age they might read: The role of touch in regulating inter-partner physiological coupling during empathy for pain.

That is the title of a report by Pavel Goldstein, Irit Weissman-Fogel, and Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory, which presents data on the power of a lover's touch to ease pain and bring comfort. Published in Science Reports and emanating from Colorado University's Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab, the study employed a model scenario to reveal how couples synchronize their breathing and heartbeats when one of them is in pain.

Goldstein and his team wanted to find out what happens when romantic couples are together and one of them feels pain. What will happen when they hold hands? What will happen if they are denied touch?

The study monitored 22 couples who were romantically involved. Goldstein had them imagine a delivery-room scenario as the woman underwent mild periods of pain. The woman was subjected to heat applied to her arm, not enough to harm but enough to bring discomfort.

The woman sat in a chair facing one direction, her partner (these were all heterosexual couples) sat next to her facing the opposite direction. Goldstein monitored each person's heartbeat with an ECG, also each person's breathing rate. He was looking for instances of "inter-partner physiological coupling," which would indicate mutual empathy during pain situations.

What they found was the power of touch is wondrously important during times of stress.

At first the couple did not hold hands. When heat was applied to the woman's arm both breathing and heartbeat were not synchronized. But when the researchers allowed the couple to hold hands, within a short time their heartbeats coincided and they breathed in synchronous rhythm.

The couple seemed to empathize, but when researches separated their hands there was a physiological, and measurable, uncoupling. Denied touch, the two bodies lost their common rhythm. Was this just psychological? Perhaps partly, but recent studies have shown that electrodermal stimulation occurs during touching. In other words, by holding hands loving couples are able to communicate emotional states. The team stated that social touch, skin-to-skin contact, may play a key factor in emotional bonding.

Perhaps Goldstein and his team are merely validating the words of Plato. Every mother knows to pat her child's hand when her baby is sick. It helps, and now we have data to confirm it.

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