Science has long known that support from loved ones –in the form of touch, tenderness or kind words – really can make people feel better. As well as reducing a patient’s immediate discomfort and stress, the benefits can continue in the form of reduced blood pressure and improved immune function. Now some fascinating research shows that giving the support can be as beneficial as receiving it.
A study in the January 2012 edition of Psychosomatic Medicine, a peer-reviewed health psychology journal, reported on what happens to the brain activity of women who provide support to their partners. In the study, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to scan the brains of 20 young women whose boyfriends were standing just outside the scanner. As the women’s brains were being scanned, the poor fellas were subjected to painful electric shocks – something they willingly signed up for in the name of science. At various times, the women were able to hold their boyfriends’ arm. At other times, the women had to watch their boyfriends endure the shocks without being able to do anything. To provide a ‘control condition’, there were times when the boyfriends did not receive any shock at all and the women could either touch or not touch their arm.
The researchers found that simply touching their boyfriends’ arm as they experienced pain activated the ‘reward’ regions of the women’s brains, the same areas that are active in response to chocolate, sex and winning money. In other words, giving support was processed as a very basic type of rewarding experience. There was another interesting finding: the brains of the women who were able to touch their boyfriends during the shocks showed decreased activity in the region of the brain known to be involved in stress and fear.
What does all this mean? Naomi Eisenberger, the senior author of the study, speculated that humans are wired to give support to those close to us. This increases the chances of the support giver surviving and in evolutionary terms, making it more likely that healthy genes will be passed on. By making it psychologically rewarding to give support, nature is sneakily encouraging us to do it more often.
What I would love to know – and no doubt the researchers are on to it – is whether the results would be the same if it were women receiving the electric shocks while their boyfriends provided the soothing touch!