New research shows that when an empathetic lover holds the hand of his or her partner who is suffering pain, their heart and respiratory rates become synchronized and the pain dissipates. “The more empathic the partner, the higher the synchronization between the two when they are touching, and the stronger the relief of pain,” said lead researcher Pavel Goldstein of the University of Colorado (US). This study is the latest in a growing body of research on “interpersonal synchronization” – the phenomenon in which individuals begin to physiologically mirror the people they are with.
Previous studies have shown that people subconsciously sync their footsteps with the person they are walking with, or adjust their posture to mirror a friend’s during conversation. It has also been proven that when people watch an emotional movie or sing together, their heart rates and respiratory rhythms synchronize. Other studies have shown that when romantic couples are in each other’s presence, their breathing, heart rates and brainwave patterns come into sync. This new study is the first to explore such interpersonal synchronization in the context of pain and touch. The authors hope that their work will add to the discussion of finding safe pain relief options that can be used instead of deadly addictive opioid drugs.
Goldstein came up with the idea after witnessing the birth of his daughter. “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. So I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?” As in previous trials, the study showed that couples synced to some degree by just sitting together, but when one of them felt pain that synchronization stopped. However, when the loving partner held the hand of the one in pain, their rates fell into sync again and the pain decreased. “It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples… and touch brings it back.” The study concludes that this ‘interpersonal synchronization’ could be a key factor in the documented success of touch therapy.