Your beloved could be your analgesic

One of the most heart-wrenching experiences one can live through is watching someone, especially someone you love, suffer great emotional and/or physical pain. In those times, you feel helpless and would give anything to ease your beloved's pain, including bargaining with your god to consider assigning you that pain instead. But aside from medical interventions like painkillers and relievers, is there anything else that you, the self-declared "useless" beloved, can do to ease her or his pain? 

Yes, and it is free, because it is a natural tendency that we all generally possess: touching. Studies have long previously shown that our sense of touch activates feelings of connectedness to others, aside from perceiving the environment itself. The skin is indeed a social organ – sending an army of electrochemical signals to the brain that shape how we perceive pain. Pain is an acute negative experience, and if indeed being touched eases our perception of pain, how does this happen between the one experiencing the pain (target) and the observer of the same pain in the other (observer) at the same time? 

Researchers have also had strong evidence to believe that there is a connection in real time between the brains of people who are in pain and the ones observing someone in pain. Observing their brains in scans while they are in either of those conditions have identified shared brain networks that are specifically animated in those times. This means that experiencing pain is similar to empathy for pain, as far as our brain activations – both in terms of blood flow and brain waves – are concerned. However, there have not yet been clear evidence on what happens to the brain networks of both at the same time.

Now, there is a method called hyperscanning that can now allow multiple brain scans of people in real time so that you can actually see if the activated parts of the different brains are related in an experience of pain and observed pain. And indeed, in a study published last year, they have proven that hand-holding enhances the "coupling" of the brain networks for the one experiencing the pain and the one observing it. It also revealed that the more empathy from the partner observing the pain, the greater the decrease in pain perception of the one experiencing the pain.

Before you start all forms of touching, intending to ease the pain of someone you know, you have to know two things: one, that the study focused on the effect of hand-holding; and two, that it only works if you love each other. It did not really work significantly for people who did not know each other. Pain also did not ease for the other when the other was merely present but did not hold the hand of the one experiencing the pain. This does not mean that it will not work for other body parts. It just means that this study showed what hand-holding can do to ease a beloved's pain. It may also mean further research as to the kind of emotional signals that touch receptors located in the hand can release vis-à-vis the ones from other parts of the body.  

The scientists involved in the study offered very interesting possible explanations for this power of hand-holding to reduce pain. One is that holding the hand of the beloved produces an emotional state in the one experiencing the pain that matches his or her beloved which gives rise to positive feelings for the one in pain. This animates the "reward" brain circuitry, which plays a part in easing one's pain. Also, when lovers hold hands, their heart rates and breathing rates sync, which also plays a part in the easing of perceived pain.

It has long been scientifically established that physical and emotional pain activate the same brain regions and that taking pain reliever drugs (analgesics) can ease physical as well as emotional pain. Recently, a specific pain reliever acetaminophen, has also been proven to blunt your feelings of empathy. All these make a strong case that the lines between our emotional and physiological states are as blurred in our biology as in our experiences. So while poems and novels on romantic love will assign terms of endearment to your beloved like "honey," "sweetheart," or "baby," science says if she or he genuinely empathizes with your pain enough and holds your hand, she or he could also now carry the title "pain reliever." Behold, once again, one of life's ironies: the one who can ease your physical pain is the one who can also potentially cause you the greatest emotional pain. –

Maria Isabel Garcia is a science writer. She has written two books, "Science Solitaire" and "Twenty One Grams of Spirit and Seven Ounces of Desire." You can reach her at