Touching with Empathy Reduces Pain and Syncs Brainwaves
The power of touch has long been used by some healers to speed healing and reduce pain. And some studies have shown that touching is important for infants in order to promote healthy growth and mental stability. But for the most part, the technology of touch has been mysterious. Recent research is unveiling the power of touching between couples. More specifically, that empathetic touching synchronizes brainwaves and can reduce pain.
Researching touch with hand holding
Researchers at the University of Colorado and the University of Halfa tested 44 people. That is, 22 heterosexual romantic couples between the age of 23 and 32 who had been together at least for a year.
The researchers had each of the couples undergo various tests while they wore electroencephalography (EEG) caps that measured their brainwaves. The tests included:
• Sitting apart in separate rooms
• Sitting together without touching
• Sitting together while holding hands
Then the researchers repeated the tests while giving the woman of each couple a mild heat pain on the arm.
A touching personal experience
The research comes after CU researcher Dr. Pavel Goldstein had an experience of his own related to touching.
During the birth of his daughter, Dr. Goldstein found that holding his wife’s hand eased her pain. Dr. Goldstein stated:
“I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?”
Dr. Goldstein’s research explores a phenomenon known as “interpersonal synchronization.” This occurs when there is a mirroring of brain and physiology among people who share time and touch.
Furthermore, Dr. Goldstein’s research looks at brain wave synchronization within the context of pain. This opens the door for what is often referred to as healing touch, also as touch-induced analgesia.
Presence and touch synchronizes brainwaves
With exhaustive testing and three research papers, the researchers had significant findings. They found that when couples sat together in the same room, there was a synchronization of brainwaves. This synchronization occurred mostly in the alpha mu band. This brain wave is linked to focus and attention.
Holding hands increased this effect. When the couples held hands, they found an even greater synchronization of brainwaves.
Interestingly, this synchronization of brainwaves is also referred to as “coupling.”
When the couples held hands while the woman was subjected to mild pain, the synchronization of brainwaves was even greater.
But when she was in pain and the guy didn’t touch her, their synchronization of brainwaves decreased.
“It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples and touch brings it back,” says Goldstein.
Empathetic touching decreases pain
Further testing by the researchers found that some men were able to significantly reduce the levels of pain experienced by the woman through holding hands.
The greatest effects were found among those couples where the men had greater levels of empathy.
The more empathetic partner was able to more greatly reduce the feeling of pain for the woman. This pain reduction also corresponded to greater levels of brainwave synchronization among the couple with the empathetic male.
Dr. Pavel said:
“You may express empathy for a partner’s pain, but without touch it may not be fully communicated.”
Other studies have confirmed this effect
This is not the first study that has found the benefits of interpersonal touch. A 2014 study from France’s Joseph Fourier University tested 28 people (14 romantic couples). They tested touching versus no touching between the couples, with two-minute tests each.
The researchers utilized several devices to measure respiration, pulse, electrodermal activity and EEG activity between the couples. They sat across from each other and held hands (or not) across the table under various circumstances.
The researchers found that touching increased the couples’ synchronization of the various physiological elements – their skin conductance, pulse and respiration. They also had increased coupling of their electrodermal activity when they touched.
They also found increased coupling as a result of greater levels of empathy.
Takeaway: A loving empathetic touch
These studies confirm what we have experienced for thousands of years: That an empathic loving touch during times of crisis or pain is extremely beneficial. Both physiologically and psychologically.
These studies also challenge each of us as individuals and professionals to have greater empathy for those around us. Empathy is not something we either have or don’t have.
How can we develop more empathy?
Regardless of whether we feel empathy for others or not, we can always develop greater empathy. Whether its for our loved ones, our neighbors, our patients, our clients or fellow humans around the world, there’s always room in our heart for greater empathy.
The medical literature is now burgeoning with studies about the benefits of mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness meditation has been basicallly been defined as a quiet meditative focus upon ourselves. Mindfulness meditation experts tell us to go to a quiet area, breathe deep and turn our thoughts inward, towards ourselves.
Well, with a slight twist, this same technique can help us develop more empathy towards others. We can still go to a quiet area. We can still breathe deep. But instead of turning our thoughts inward, we can imagine ourselves walking in someone else’s shoes for awhile. We can consider the things that are affecting their lives, and imagine those things happening to us.
Perhaps this someone else is someone close to us. Or perhaps someone who has reached out to us for help. Or perhaps someone we are having problems with. Or perhaps someone or some group of people who have been hurt by some crisis or event somewhere in the world.
Creating more empathy for others is not inborn. It is developed. It is a matter of taking our selves outside of our own bodies and walking a mile in someone else’s shoes for a change.
We don’t have to go to a quiet place for this either. We can practice this anytime, anywhere.
We could call such a technique, Empathetic Mindfulness. Others might simply call it kindness.
We can further practice this empathic mindfulness by giving someone in need a consoling touch at the appropriate time.
The paradigm is confirmed by Dr. Goldstein and his associates in one of their research papers, which stated:
“Considering that the soma affects the way we think, feel, and interact with others, it has been proposed that touch may communicate emotions, including empathy, interacting with the identity of the toucher.”
Goldstein P, Weissman-Fogel I, Dumas G, Shamay-Tsoory SG. Brain-to-brain coupling during handholding is associated with pain reduction. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Feb 26. pii: 201703643. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1703643115.
Goldstein P, Weissman-Fogel I, Shamay-Tsoory SG. The role of touch in regulating inter-partner physiological coupling during empathy for pain. Sci Rep. 2017 Jun 12;7(1):3252. doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-03627-7.
Peled-Avron L, Goldstein P, Yellinek S, Weissman-Fogel I, Shamay-Tsoory SG. Empathy during consoling touch is modulated by mu-rhythm: An EEG study. Neuropsychologia. 2017 Apr 22. pii: S0028-3932(17)30155-0. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2017.04.026.
Goldstein P, Shamay-Tsoory SG, Yellinek S, Weissman-Fogel I. Empathy Predicts an Experimental Pain Reduction During Touch. J Pain. 2016 Oct;17(10):1049-1057. doi: 10.1016/j.jpain.2016.06.007.
Chatel-Goldman J, Congedo M, Jutten C, Schwartz JL. Touch increases autonomic coupling between romantic partners. Front Behav Neurosci. 2014 Mar 27;8:95. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2014.00095.