In Part 1 of this post, I confessed my fascination with holding hands. Marianne and I have been holding hands everywhere we go for almost 60 years. It’s as natural to us as breathing, and it is no less profound today as it was back when we were two kids excitedly falling in love. It’s still magic.
In Part 2 I’d like to explore the science that explains the “electricity of connection” that we experience when we hold hands, why we’re seeing fewer and fewer people holding hands today, what that means, and what the future of this simple public display of connection looks like in the modern world..
Holding hands – the science
According to Psychology professor James Coan at the University Of Virginia(1) natural selection has shaped our brain and body to be a social animal. Social relationships are effective in protecting us against stress and providing a sense of security. That sense of security “brings with it the knowledge that we have a companion, a helper, a guide, another mind who knows about and is interested in ours.”
Unwanted isolation is dangerous to us. We look for signals from each other that we are together. When we do not feel those signals, we can experience stress. Touching can relax our brain and body so that we can focus on other issues in our world. It’s like the connection of holding hands adds neural “bandwidth” to our brain, freeing it to look elsewhere for more positive stimuli.
Our hands have dense sensory capabilities – they are our window to the world. There is a greater concentration of nerve endings in the hands and fingertips than in any other part of the body. Our sense of touch is a prominent source of information about the world around us – a world in which we continually seek the security of connection. It’s like reaching out in the dark, feeling another person’s hand, and experiencing an instant sense of relaxation and security – knowing that you are not alone.
Holding hands is good for our health
When we hold hands with another person, activity in the hypothalamus of the brain reduces, which helps regulate the body’s stress response.(2) When we are stressed, the hormone cortisol rushes through our bloodstream increasing the sensitivity of our skin. Holding hands decreases the level of cortisol in the bloodstream so that we feel more content and connected. Low levels of cortisol and lower activity in the hypothalamus are associated with better overall health and well being. Holding hands is good for our health.
Handholding produces oxytocin, a hormone that improves empathy and communication in a relationship. It strengthens bonds in relationships and makes us feel happier.
Handholding also helps our cardiovascular system.(3) It actually lowers blood pressure. The warm sensation of human touch has a powerful effect on lowering cardiovascular reactivity to stressful situations – easing the strain on our heart.
Holding hands can relieve pain. The sensation of human touch can reduce pain levels, as any woman in childbirth will tell you as she reaches out her hand for comfort and support.
It also reduces the sensation of fear by suppressing the production of the adrenaline hormone in fear situations. Adrenaline stimulates the release of cortisol into the bloodstream. Handholding with a trusted person reduces that reaction providing a sense of security and comfort.
A sense of security is essential in life.
From holding hands with a child as they face new and scary experiences… securing a romantic connection between loving partners… validating a friendship…comforting a senior who feels alone… there are an infinite number of ways that holding hands is an essential life skill.
The growing challenge
Yet for all its powerful and profound benefits, why do I see less of it as I look around at today’s world? I contend that HUMAN CONNECTION has become one of the greatest challenges facing the modern world. We are simply not connecting with the same breadth and intensity that I perceived only 30 or 40 years ago. Why is that?
I think there are 3 major contributing factors:
1. Technology – While the telephone, email, Zoom, social media, etc. have enabled so much more connection, the amount of in-person human connection has suffered (and Covid-19 just made it worse).
2. Polarization – Too many relationships today are impacted by the growing polarization of our world – politically, culturally, racially, economically. Too many people see others as “the other.” We have lost some sense of community, brotherhood, a kinship and empathy for our common humanity rather than a narrow focus on difference.
3. It’s not “cool” – The growing focus on #1 and #2 are changing social norms. Individualization is celebrated today – especially by our youth. So it is less “cool” than it used to be to express love so publicly holding his or her hand.
It will never die because its benefits are so valued by humans. But I hate to see it wane when it is such a magical expression of our connection. I, at the least, am a determined proponent and unflinching believer in its magic.
I hope you are, too.
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