This Is What Holding Hands Does To Your Brain, According To A New Study

by Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro
Carsten Koall/Getty Images News/Getty Images

When you’re physically close to your partner, you’ve probably noticed you’re in a happier mood, or more relaxed and content. Sure, it’s common knowledge that sex and cuddling can make you and your loved one feel closer, but even something as simple as holding hands may significantly benefit your relationship. So, why does holding hands with your partner make you feel good? According to a new study, it can ease pain, and actually sync your brain waves.

The study, conducted by researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder (CU Boulder), was published in the scientific journal the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) on Feb. 26. The scientists behind the research aimed to explore "interpersonal synchronization," which is essentially the idea that humans can sync up bodily functions, like breathing. Though other studies have looked at this topic, this is the first study to examine interpersonal synchronization in the case of pain.

"We have developed a lot of ways to communicate in the modern world and we have fewer physical interactions. This paper illustrates the power and importance of human touch," Pavel Goldstein, the study’s lead author and researcher in the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at CU Boulder, said in a press release.

For the research, 22 heterosexual couples who had been together at least a year were subjected to a series of scenarios while being hooked up to an electroencephalography (EEG) machine to measure brain waves. The tests included sitting in the same room but not touching, sitting together while holding hands, and sitting in completely separate rooms. During the tests, the women were subject to heat-induced pain on their arms.

The researchers found that when the couple was in the same room with each other, but not touching, there was slight synchronicity of their brain waves. However, when the couple was allowed to sit together while holding hands, their brain wave connection became even stronger. Interestingly, when the men held hands with their partners and became more in sync, they experienced more feelings of empathy — and the women’s pain subsided. Basically, hand holding was shown to be an instant, powerful pain reliever for the women, and also made the men feel bonded to their partners. Pretty neat if you ask me!

However, when the couple wasn’t allowed to have physical contact, their brain wave synchronicity decreased. "It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronization between couples, and touch brings it back," explained Goldstein in the press release. Additionally, Goldstein concluded that, "You may express empathy for a partner's pain, but without touch it may not be fully communicated.”

In addition to syncing up your brain activity, the CU Boulder researchers revealed their findings are in line with previous studies conducted that examined the synchronization of heartbeats and breathing patterns. Holding hands with your partner — and touching in general — has a number of benefits that will make feel closer and more connected to your loved one. Hand holding and touching can make your brain release endorphins, the same mood-boosting chemical that’s released when you exercise. It also releases oxytocin, aka the “cuddle hormone,” which makes you feel more bonded to your partner. Not only does holding hands release all these feel-good chemicals, but NPR reported it can decrease the production of cortisol, the stress hormone, and actually help subdue feelings of anxiety.

Of course, the small scale of this study means that more research will need to be done on this phenomenon, but it's pretty clear that hand holding does make you feel good. Hand holding is an important act that helps to maintain a loving relationship, foster empathy, and reduce physical pain. Whether you’re at home, taking a stroll, or reading by your partner in bed, try holding hands more often. As this study proved, it is seriously all-around beneficial to your health, wellness, and relationship.