I like holding my kids’ hands when we go places. My third grader is starting to assert some independence, and won’t casually hold hands as much as she used to, a fact that reminds me to appreciate my four-year-old’s tiny grip all the more. Scientists are finding that holding hands isn’t just a small pleasantry though, as it seems to trigger changes in participants’ brains that affect stress levels, cognition and even pain perception. In fact, it’s possible that part of my enjoyment in holding my child’s hand is that I’m offloading cognitive duties to them, leaving me with an easier stroll down the street.
Dr. Jim Coan has been investigating the effects of holding hands on the brain for years. Experiments generally involved pairs of people, one of which was in an fMRI machine to monitor brain activity. In each round of the experiment, the subjects would see either a red “X” or a blue “O” displayed on a screen, the former of which warned of a 20 percent chance of the person being scanned receiving a small electric shock 12 seconds later. During the 12 seconds after seeing a red “X,” most people’s brains showed a flurry of activity, from increases in stress to paying attention to the site of the possible pain. The big variable in all this was the partner’s touch.
Hands that help vs. those that hurt
Throughout these experiments, people would be asked to either hold hands or sit near each other. Holding hands with a trusted companion was found to make a huge difference in people’s reactions— there were fewer signs of stress, agitation and even pain all over the brain. In some cases, hypothalamus activity changed enough that it’s suspected to be part of the mechanism that makes people with social connections generally have better health than people who live alone. A variation on the study had children with anxiety disorders hold the hands of their mothers while reading scary words like “monster” instead of receiving shocks, and that small bit of physical contact was soothing enough for the kids to behave as if anxiety wasn’t an issue.
This isn’t to say that holding hands is a cure-all. The above effects were only seen in cases where a person’s partner was someone they trusted and were connected to, such as a spouse, friend or reliable roommate. In variations where people being shocked while holding a stranger’s hand, the positive effects were nearly absent. For people who lived in areas with higher crime rates, strangers actually made things worse, strongly indicating that the physical contact of hand-holding isn’t as important as the social relationship between the people involved.
Social support as a starting point
This may seem intuitive, but that doesn’t explain why any of this happens. When researchers looked at areas of the brain like the prefrontal cortex, they expected to see that holding hands inhibited activity, like the comforting touch of a partner helped the brain tamp down worry and pain. They were wrong though, as no such “self control” could be detected. One clue to help reformulate their model for hand-holding was a variation on the shock experiments that found that threats to shock a partner triggered activity in the “safe” person’s brain as if they were in danger. In other other words, the brain treated a trusted partner almost like an extension of itself.
The new model for all this activity is that as highly social animals, humans actually treat having social contacts as our baseline, rather than a modifier. It’s not that holding hands is better than normal, it’s that sharing experiences with other people is normal, and suffering alone is the more difficult alternative. (In fact, people who have stronger preferences to work alone have also been found to have higher resting glucose levels, meaning they’ve got more energy of their own to expend on daily tasks.)
Shared safety net
So having a spouse or friend with you helps you basically relax a bit, sharing responsibility for well-being with that other person, a state accentuated when you’re physically connected. Why worry about every detail of a possible threat when your friend is there to assist you? In the case of my kids, I’m hopefully not offloading too much responsibility for our safety onto a four-year-old, although knowing that the kid is safe next to me certainly does help lower my stress levels in a parking lot. I’ll enjoy it while it lasts.
Source: Holding Hands is More Important Than You Think by Maximus Thaler, The Evolution Institute