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.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).
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.
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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