What Happens to the Human Brain when Touch is Provided?

The hand holding mystery

I recently came back from a 4-day conference and had the privilege of hearing from neuroscientist Jim Coan. He had the question, “Why do people hold hands?” and the only way to find out was to feed people through a MRI machine, so he says.

He had a group of happy couples come in. He fed the female partner inside a MRI machine and showed them either a red x or a blue o. When the red x flashes, it signals a 20% chance of a mild electric shock on the ankle. When a blue o appears, it means no electric shock.

Coan measured 3 conditions: the woman being alone, holding the hands of a stranger, or holding the hand of her partner. Can you guess what happened?

When under the threat of an electric shock by themselves, the brain got really busy. When holding the hand of a stranger, the same regions of the brain were less active. Finally, when holding the hand of a significant other, there was a reported decrease in vigilance and physiological arousal. The pre-frontal cortex, partly responsible for regulating emotions, was less active, because the partner's touch helped to regulate and reassure. Moreover, there was also less activity in the area of the brain responsible for dumping stress hormones into the bloodstream.

Similar results were found in larger, more diverse populations, and between not just partners, but also friends. There was an overall decreased activity in the region of the brain sensing pain. Somehow, pain or emotions about the pain were attenuated with handholding.

Here's Coan's study on Ted Talk:

Bringing it home

In my last blog post why friends matter, I talked about how the presence of my best friend, aka husband helped mitigate perceived stress. Let me give you a different example with a near stranger.

Last year, I had to go into a medical procedure which had me feeling very scared. It was unplanned, so my husband couldn't be there. The nurse Joanne walked me through what to expect. While I still sensed the anxiety and pain before, during and after the procedure, something was very memorable: she had put her hand on my shoulder the whole time. There was something comforting about the touch of another, the pressure that I felt, the knowing that I wasn't alone. Squeeze me into a MRI machine and I can only imagine her touch was soothing to my busy brain.

What does this mean for you?

If you are in an unhappy relationship and you yearn for your partner's hand to hold and comfort you, there is hope. Sue Johnson, the pioneer of Emotionally Focused Therapy teamed up with Coan to do a study with a group of distressed couples. Prior to 20 weeks of EFT, there was NO difference in these women's brain activity whether alone or holding the hand of their partner. Post treatment, their brains looked a lot like that of happy couples: their partner's presence was soothing and created a buffer against the threat of a shock. EFT helped these marriages create a sense of safety and closeness, and Johnson would say such security is a protective factor against life's challenges.

I practice this type of therapy and I can help you! Give me a call!


Ada Pang, MS, LMFT is the proud owner of People Bloom Counseling, a Redmond counseling practice in WA. She loves helping couples reconnect in their relationships. Her most memorable moments with her husband are not at their wedding or during their travels; rather, it's when they're on the couch, talking about anything and everything.