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, we 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. 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.”
“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 that can hand-holding 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 several important areas of life.
Through multiple studies at TRI, Field has concluded that physical touch can affect several important areas of society, including pain management, lower blood pressure, less violence, increased trust, stronger immune system, greater learning engagement and 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”
“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. 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.
When we infuse compassion into our lives we unleash the healing power of humankindness. Backed by science, Dignity Health is grounded in the belief that medicine is more effective when delivered with compassion and kindness and healthier for our mind, body, and spirit.