Thursday, February 23, 2006

I Wanna Hold Your Hand

This one was widely covered in the popular press a few weeks ago, albeit the Psychological Science article itself has yet to appear in print (or in cyberspace). From the New York Times:

Holding Loved One's Hand Can Calm Jittery Neurons

Married women under extreme stress who reach out and hold their husbands' hands feel immediate relief, neuroscientists have found in what they say is the first study of how human touch affects the neural response to threatening situations.

The soothing effect of the touch could be seen in scans of areas deep in the brain that are involved in registering emotional and physical alarm.

The women received significantly more relief from their husbands' touch than from a stranger's, and those in particularly close marriages were most deeply comforted by their husbands' hands, the study found.

In the first sentence, the words "extreme stress" jumped out at me. What could be the source of this extreme stress? Being threatened by a barking Doberman? Enduring a tough round of questioning by your dissertation committee? Getting a phone call from your boss, who explains why you've been passed over for a promotion, while the twins are screaming in the background? Jumping out of an airplane? Undergoing a tumor biopsy? OK, OK, this is an fMRI experiment, so the source of the "extreme stress" was:

"knowing that they would periodically receive a mild electric shock to an ankle..."

Oh, I see.
Brain images showed peaks of activation in regions involved in anticipating pain, heightening physical arousal and regulating negative emotions, among other systems.

But the moment that they felt their husbands' hands — the men reached into the imaging machine — each woman's activity level plunged in all the regions gearing up for the threat. A stranger's hand also provided some comfort, though less so.

All right, now none of this coverage is the fault of the researchers who conducted the study (which was not available to The Neurocritic for review).

What I really wanted to comment on is the personal observation that when under an actual state of extreme stress (say, in a hospital after major surgery when your temperature is 38.5° C, your limbs are tingling, you're extremely light-headed and dizzy, with deficient hematocrit, "tunnel hearing," and low blood pressure despite an excessive amount of pain and anxiety, just to name an example), being touched by anyone (e.g., a nurse) can be very comforting.

Other questions raised by this study: what about married women holding their mothers' hands? married men holding their wives' hands? unmarried women holding their partners' hands? single women holding the hands of their best friends? Perhaps the authors started with the relationship that they most expected to yield significant results...

ADDENDUM: The paper is available here, after all.

LENDING A HAND: SOCIAL REGULATION OF THE NEURAL RESPONSE TO THREAT
James A. Coan, Hillary S. Schaefer, and Richard J. Davidson

Social contact promotes enhanced health and well being, likely as a function of the social regulation of emotional responding in the face of various life stressors. For this functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study, 16 married women were subjected to the threat of electric shock while either holding their husband’s hand, holding the hands of anonymous male experimenters, or holding no hand at all. Results indicated a pervasive attenuation of activation in the neural systems supporting emotional and behavioral threat responses as a function of spousal handholding. A more limited attenuation of activation in these systems occurred as a function of stranger handholding. Most strikingly, the effects of spousal handholding on neural threat responses varied as a function of marital quality, with higher marital quality predicting less threat-related neural activation in the right anterior insula, superior frontal gyrus and hypothalamus during spousal, but not stranger, handholding.

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2 Comments:

At March 04, 2006 5:20 PM, Anonymous Boston area psychologist said...

Dear Neurocritic:

You failed to write any "criticism" of this study. Is your criticism suppose to be obvious?

Instead of a criticism you gave your own hypothesis, which apparently you feel is obvious. You wrote:

What I really wanted to comment on is the personal observation that when under an actual state of extreme stress .... being touched by anyone (e.g., a nurse) can be very comforting

But what is the evidence for this? You mean, based on your own commonsense reasoning? The article you are holding up as dubious science in fact provides excellent evidence that your hypothesis is probably incorrect. This Psychological Science article found that a stranger's hand was not as comforting as a husband's hand, even for so mild a stress as anticipated electric shock. Imagine that for a a strong stress a stranger's hand might even be aversive, on the idea that one is longing for closeness. I wouldn't want to grip a stranger's hand when I'm strugging to keep from screaming in pain, because of the social awkwardness of a stranger seeing me in so much pain.

Furthermore, the article showed that marital quality mediated the stress-alleviating effect. That's a pretty powerful finding.

It wasn't that long ago that husbands weren't allowed in the delivery room. Some commonsense was missing in those days. Wish we'd had studies like this one 20 years ago.

Then you went on to ask if the mother's hand would help, etc. Are these questions suppose to mock the findings? The findings themselves provide quidelines for answering your question. Given that marital quality increases the stress-alleviating properties of touch, one would predict that high quality personal relationships are more effective that poor quality, and so on.

The study provides the basis for a set of general expectations about how social contacts can alleviate stress. Hospital patients still must contend with limited visiting hours from relatives and loved ones. Pain medications do not alleviate pain perfection and can have side effects. More use of social/psychological methods to alleviate pain would thus seem to be welcome. For these reasons, this type of study is very much needed. I can understand why this study is being published in one of the most prestigious outlets for psychological research.

 
At March 07, 2006 4:08 PM, Blogger The Neurocritic said...

By posing additional questions about hand-holding by mothers, unmarried partners, etc., The Neurocritic did not intend to mock this study, merely to remind readers that not everyone in the world is married. Some of these unmarried individuals have very close relationships with others (family members, friends, significant others). Some individuals (i.e., gay people) are not allowed to get married in most countries. Does that mean these unmarried individuals would not benefit from holding the hand of someone close to them? In addition, it is not sarcastic to wonder whether husbands would feel similar comfort from holding their wives' hands.

As a matter of policy, The Neurocritic may actually LIKE some studies (see The "Face Module" Identified in Moneys?) and make some PERSONAL OBSERVATIONS that are not based on fact. Note, in the present post, I did say that "I really wanted to comment on the personal observation..." and I go on to describe something that *actually* happened to me after major surgery (two weeks prior to writing the post)!! It may have *sounded* glib (see The Neurocritic's profile for a clue), but I really did find it comforting to be touched by a nurse. It was more comforting to be touched by my unmarried partner, who was there (although I did not try to quantify the difference at the time). However, I would challenge any Boston area psychologist to prove that my relationship with my partner is not as close as the married "supercouples" in the Psych Sci paper.

 

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