When I was growing up, my favorite band was The Beatles, and the very first time I heard ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand,’ I was struck by the dizzying feeling that those lyrics held some mystical significance for the world. Now, with new research from the University of Colorado at Boulder, I finally understand why.
The Colorado researchers have made the extraordinary discovery that when we hold hands or empathize with a loved one in pain, the very act of doing so is itself a pain-reliever, and the main reason we can lower the pain in the sufferer is that our brains go into synchrony.
Scientists call this phenomenon ‘interpersonal synchronization’, caused by the mirroring between people of heart rate, breathing and even brain waves.
Pavel Goldstein, the lead researcher, got the idea of testing out this hypothesis after noticing that his wife’s pain during childbirth markedly decreased when he held her hand.
Brains in and out of sync
After gathering 22 couples as volunteers, all of whom had been with their partners for at least a year, the research team placed EEG (electro-encephalography) caps on all the volunteers and measured brain waves during different situations: when they were sitting but not touching, or holding hands, or completely apart in separate rooms.
But when even in the presence of the beloved, each couple’s brain waves began to sync, and even more so when they were holding hands.
However, if one of the partners was in pain, and not touching his or her other half, the brain-wave, breathing and heart-rate synchronization diminished, but were restored as soon as the couples began holding hands.
“It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples and touch brings it back,” said Prof Goldstein.
Goldstein also observed that empathy by the well partner for the other couple member in pain not only also caused better brain syncing, but the more empathetic the person was, the less pain experienced by his or her partner.
The Colorado researchers had no explanation for this phenomenon and wanted to study it further.
But the science of consciousness is well used to it, and many studies demonstrate that touch isn’t strictly necessary. All you need is a lovely intention.
The Love Study
The famous Institute of Noetic Sciences’ ‘Love Study,’ for instance, tested what would happen if the well partner simply sent his or her ill partner healing thoughts.
The IONS researchers recruited 31 couples with a partner suffering from cancer of any variety, with healthy couples who were to act as controls.
With every couple, the member with the cancer (or one of the designated partners in the control group) was asked to sit in a black reclining chair placed in a one-ton, solid steel, double-walled, electromagnetically shielded enclosure.
Each inhabitant was fitted to an array of medical gadgetry to measure brain waves, heartbeat, breathing rate, skin conductance and peripheral blood flow. A video camera stood discretely in the corner.
Some 20 metres away, the other partner was seated in the dark, attached to the same medical equipment as his or her partner, staring at a small blank TV screen. Whenever the image of the partner in the refrigerator room abruptly flashed on the television screen, the other member of the couple was to send a compassionate intention to his or her partner for 10 seconds.
After compiling all the physiological data from the three groups the researchers recorded a physiological response offering fascinating information about the effect of intention on the receiver. For instance, in the case of measurements of blood to the extremities, the sender’s skin conductance increased 2 seconds after seeing the partner’s image, and the receiver recorded a similar arousal a half second after the image had flashed, and remained for 7 seconds after the stimulus. The receiver clearly appeared to be responding to intention – indeed, almost instantaneously.
A similar situation occurred with the heart rate. The sender’s heart rate increased 5 seconds after the stimulus prompt to send the intention, but an identical increase took place in the receiver, which would not happen ordinarily if he or she were simply resting in a recliner.
Blood flow followed a similar pattern. Whenever we experience something that stimulates us, the vascular network in our extremities constricts slightly, to maximize blood flow to the core of the body. In the Love Study, this phenomenon occurred in the sender, and was soon imitated in the body of the receiver.
Mimicked brain waves
But it was the brain-wave results that proved to be the most interesting. Whenever the receiver’s image flashed on the screen, the senders recorded a little up-turn in brain waves, like a ‘flinch response,’ and then a huge spike for about a third of a second before they dropped sharply and took about one second to come back to baseline.
In the sender, this tiny initial upturn represents something called a P300 wave – a well-established phenomenon that records the time that the brain takes to process the switching on of a light. The drop represents the time it takes for internal attention to modulate the stimulus into a response.
In this instance, the receivers had no P300 wave, but their brain waves nevertheless mimicked the virtually vertical plunge of the brain wave that shortly followed in the sender, even though, unlike the sender, the receiver had had no stimulus.
The receivers had registered an emotional reaction, even though there was no tangible stimulus.
When the groups were compared, all three groups had shown an effect. In every instance, each physiological response of the receivers had tracked those of the senders.
However, the most prolonged pattern occurred among the cancer patients whose partners had been trained in intention techniques. The receivers in the training group not only responded to the stimulus, but also kept responding over 8 of the 10 seconds of the intention. In quantum terms, the couples had become as one.
It has become increasingly clear to me that when we send intention – or even hold someone’s hand – in a manner of speaking, we have ‘become’ the other.