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There’s something special about holding hands with another human being. All of us are innately conscious of how this simple act can stir an instant intimacy, heighten our awareness and express a deep connection. This alchemy of two hands touching has so deeply captured our collective imagination, it’s been the subject of our highest artistic achievements, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, to the poetry of Romeo and Juliet, to the lyrics of the Beatles.
But what is it about holding hands, exactly, that makes it so powerful? In partnership with Dignity Health, The Huffington Post explored what science can tell us about this ubiquitous, mysterious gesture and how it can affect our brains and physical well-being, as well as our relationships. Holding hands, we learn, has the power to impact the world.
Human beings are hardwired to seek out each other’s touch before we are even born. If you’ve ever touched the palm of a newborn baby, then you’ve likely witnessed (and been treated to) one of the earliest instinctual responses to manifest in humans: the “grasping reflex.” Known to science as the palmar grasp reflex, the instinct makes a baby grab your finger and squeeze it tight.
Humans share this trait with our primate ancestors; it can still be observed in species of monkeys, notably in the way newborns cling to their mothers, unsupported, so the mother can transport the two, hands-free.
Human fetuses have been observed displaying this behavior weeks before full-term delivery. They will clutch their umbilical cord, place their hand in their mouth, or suck their thumb. Twin fetuses are known to hold hands, as poignantly captured in a Kansas family’s moving sonogram image, in which one twin is healthy and the other is critically ill.
Babies may relinquish the grasping reflex over time, but the importance and vitality of touch remain essential.
Touch, A Necessity Of Life
Quantifying the power of touch can be challenging for researchers — measuring the outcome of, say, depriving a child from human contact is unethical. But an unsettling episode in Romania offered scientists some telling insights into what can happen when we are denied the nurturing that touch can provide.
Charles Nelson, professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and author of the book Romania’s Abandoned Children: Deprivation, Brain Development, and the Struggle for Recovery, led a study that measured the developmental progress of hundreds of children raised in poorly run Romanian orphanages. They had endured years without being held, nuzzled or hugged, according to a Harvard Gazette report. Many of the children had physical problems and stunted growth, despite receiving proper nutrition.
The same appears to hold true through adulthood. Adults who don’t receive regular human touch — a condition called skin hunger or touch hunger — are more prone to suffer from mental and emotional maladies like depression and anxiety disorders.
As psychologists Alberto Gallace and Charles Spence point out in the journal Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, “touch is the first of our senses to develop” and “our most fundamental means of contact with the external world.” It’s more than just a comforting sensation; touch is vital to human development and life.
The ‘Love Hormone’
Clearly, we humans live to touch. But how does it sustain us? What’s happening in our bodies and minds when what we touch is another person’s hand?
Multiple studies — including one conducted at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) — show that human touch triggers the release of oxytocin, aka “the love hormone,” in our brain. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter that increases feelings of trust, generosity and compassion, and decreases feelings of fear and anxiety.
Dr. Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute (TRI) at the University of Miami/Miller School of Medicine, says that holding hands is one of the most powerful forms of touch in part because the skin is a sense organ and needs stimulation, just as the ears and the eyes do.
Touch is our most fundamental means of contact with the external world.
Psychologists Alberto Gallace and Charles Spence
“When the fingers are interlaced and someone is holding your hand, they’re stimulating pressure receptors [that trigger] what’s called vagal activity,” Field says. “When there’s pressure in the touch, the heart rate goes down, the blood pressure goes down, and you’re put in a relaxed state. When people interlace their fingers, they get more pressure stimulation than the regular way of holding hands.”
Physical touch — and especially holding hands — is commonly associated with “feeling good.” Which raises the question, is there more hand-holding can do for us?
With Touch Comes Toleration
As we’ve seen, humans are not only creatures of habit, we’re also creatures of comfort. We gravitate toward situations and people who make us feel as content and secure as possible.
In the scientific study “Lending A Hand,” neuroscientists from the University of Virginia and the University of Wisconsin studied the effect the simple act of a human touch has on people in stressful situations. In this case, the participants underwent the threat of electric shock. The researchers came to the conclusion that a “loving touch reassures.”
On a physiological level, participants were able to better cope with pain and discomfort when they were holding hands because the act of holding hands decreased the levels of stress hormones like cortisol in their body. In other words, if stress is contagious, apparently a feeling of calm is contagious, too.
The Societal Imprint Of Human Touch
Scientific research correlates physical touch with well being in several important areas of life. Multiple studies at TRI concluded physical touch can affect pain management, lower blood pressure, decrease violence, increased trust, build a stronger immune system, create greater learning engagement and enhance overall well-being.
TRI is mining the potential of touch through a range of current studies, including how massage may help premature babies to grow, and if it can reduce depression in pregnant women such that they’re less likely to deliver prematurely.
“If every preemie was massaged in the U.S.,” Field suggests, “in one year that would save about $4.8 billion in hospital costs, because on average they get out of the hospital six days earlier.”
Field and her colleagues at TRI treat people with hip pain, typically from arthritis, and work to reduce depression and sleep problems in veterans who suffer from PTSD. “Touch reduces pain because of the serotonin that’s released, and with the pressure on receptors during physical exercise, you get more deep sleep,” Field says.
Human Touch: More Important Now Than Ever
Science indicates that there’s a social argument to encourage hand-holding. What’s holding us back from embracing this? Today’s growing preoccupation with digital media over personal physical contact may unintentionally affect people negatively.
Though small in scope, another Touch Research Institute study suggests that American teenagers touch each other less than French teenagers do, and are more prone to aggressive verbal and physical behavior. Other data supports this claim that American youth is more violent and more prone to suicide than youth in other countries. Field’s hypothesis is that it has to do with ours being a “touch-phobic society.”
Oh please, say to me / You’ll let me be your man / And please, say to me / You’ll let me hold your hand
The Beatles, “I Wanna Hold Your Hand”
“With this taboo of touch in the school system, children are getting touched less,… less than when I was a kid, certainly,” Field says. “We’re so concerned about kids being touched the wrong way that we’ve basically banned it from the school system, and I think that’s really unfortunate.”
What can we do to shift this paradigm? It may be as simple as instilling in ourselves the mindfulness to outstretch a hand more often to those in our lives who matter most to us.
Holding hands with your significant other decreases the level of a stress hormone called cortisol. Even the touch of a friend or a teammate can make us feel more content, connected, or better about ourselves. When we are stressed out, a light touch on our hand can help ease the strain, both physically and mentally. Our skin also gets more sensitive when cortisol is rushing through our bloodstream, so the touch of a helping hand will have a significantly larger impact. The largest concentration of nerve endings is actually contained inside the hands and fingertips.
So, next time you’re having a really tough day, get together with your partner or a friend and ease the stressful day with them.
Oxytocin is the hormone behind this benefit. Oxytocin strengthens empathy and communication between partners in a relationship, which is proven to be a contributing factor for long-lasting, happy relationships. Holding hands with your partner will improve your relationship and create a bond that will impact the quality of your relationship significantly.
Couples who have happy relationships hold hands automatically, sometimes without even noticing, because of a habit developed by their nervous systems. Holding hands produces the oxytocin, which makes us feel happier and more loved.
Besides relieving stress, holding hands with your partner lowers your blood pressure, which is one of the major contributors to heart disease. When we’re clasping fingers with our loved ones, we’re not just easing stress and improving our relationships – we are providing a comfortable sensation that helps our heart. The power of a warm touch goes beyond the health benefits to the heart; a study from Behavioral Medicine backs up this claim.
While enduring pain, humans have the natural reflex to tighten their muscles. Think of childbirth – husbands are typically inside the delivery room holding their wife’s hand while she’s going through labor. The reflex to grasp our partner’s hand comes as second nature: It’s always easier to endure pain while holding hands with your soulmate.helping hand
Remember that horrible scene in the last horror movie you saw that made you want to jump out of your chair? Luckily, your darling was with you to hold your hand and make you feel safe. The human brain responds to sudden stimulation using adrenaline; this stimulation gets our blood pumping and releases high levels of cortisol throughout our body.
During these moments, our natural reaction is to hold hands with someone we trust. It varies from person to person, but a large portion of women will instantly grab their partner’s hand. That’s the intuitive way to fight off nerve
Simple hand holding is a source of safety and comfort for young children. Remember when your parents taught you to how to cross the street or walked you down a crowded sidewalk? Or when you were learning to ride a bicycle? Insecurity disappears when we have a hand to hold and allows us to more easily conquer obstacles. The security that parents provide their children by holding hands shapes their children’s behavior and their way of thinking.
Additionally, the sensation of safety goes both ways; parents also feel safer when their children are within their grasp.
Everybody loves comfort. The sensation of holding hands often provides a comfy feeling while talking a walk with your loved one. A great example is holding hands inside a jacket pocket to warm them up on those cold December nights when you decide to take a stroll in the snow with your partner. Even with gloves, we love to hold hands. It bonds us; it provides lovely sensations and gives us quality time with people we care about.
One thing is certain: our entire bodies, from our nerves to our brains, respond positively to touch and crave it from the time we’re born. Whether it’s due to instinct, comfort, intimacy or love, touch brings us closer to each other both physically and emotionally — and is a necessity for our overall well-being.
This tiny, commonplace behavior triggers chemical reactions in our minds that make us feel loved, happy, cared for, and respected. Holding hands is one of the fundamental ways we can positively impact our lives and the lives of others.
When we hold hands, the nerves in our skin communicate with our core nervous system, producing hormones that make us feel pleasant and warm. There’s much more to it, of course, and new studies continue to explore the positive psychological effects of human touch today.
As AT&T used to say, “Reach out and Touch Someone”, but not through the phone. Be present. Put down the phone. Hold hands.
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Adapted from the following Sources:
By HuffPost Partner Studio. The Science Behind The Profound Power Of Holding Hands |
A touching tribute. May 20, 2016
Kvrgic, Dejan. Study Discovers 7 Surprising Benefits of Holding Hands. LifeHack.com