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A Partner's Touch Could Ease Our Pain

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Those corny old love songs might be on to something after all. Scientists say the touch of a partner’s hand can both relieve pain and restore the physiological connection that pain interrupts. They published their findings in the journal Nature Scientific Reports.

Social animals love living in synch. Fireflies flash at the same time; predators prowl in unison toward their prey. Friends walking together unconsciously fall in step. Choir members’ hearts beat as one when they sing. Scientists believe these rhythmic connections may have developed to strengthen the community and the individual, making both more resilient and more likely to survive.

The same may be true of touch, a force so powerful that animals in experiments consistently choose it over food.

Pain researcher Pavel Goldstein of Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Lab at CU Boulder had both these ideas on his mind in the delivery room as his wife gave birth to their daughter.

"My wife was in pain," he said in a statement, "and all I could think was, 'What can I do to help her?' I reached for her hand and it seemed to help," he recalls. "I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?"

Goldstein and his colleagues set up a simple experiment, recruiting 22 long-term heterosexual couples. They brought the couples into the lab and hooked each person up to instruments to measure their heartbeat and breath. Some of the couples sat together, holding hands; some sat slightly apart; and some were seated in separate rooms.

Then the researchers zapped each woman’s forearm with a low amount of heat, just enough to cause pain, for 2 minutes.

Before the pain began, couples who sat in the same room experienced a concrete physiological connection. Their heartbeats and their breathing rates synched.

Then the pain came, and that connection went away—unless they were holding hands.

The same physical contact was also associated with decreased pain levels. Women hurt less when the men they loved took their hands.

The researchers can't say for sure why this is the case. "It could be that touch is a tool for communicating empathy, resulting in an analgesic, or pain-killing, effect," Goldstein said.

This study had its limitations. It was very small, and all the participants were young (23–32 years old). The experiments didn’t explore what would happen to men in pain, nor did they consider the question in same-gender couples. More research is certainly needed to validate these results. But for now, if someone you love is hurting, well, you know what to do.

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Bad Moods Might Make You More Productive
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Being in a bad mood at work might not be such a bad thing. New research shows that foul moods can lead to better executive function—the mental processing that handles skills like focus, self-control, creative thinking, mental flexibility, and working memory. But the benefit might hinge on how you go through emotions.

As part of the study, published in Personality and Individual Differences, a pair of psychologists at the University of Waterloo in Canada subjected more than 90 undergraduate students to a battery of tests designed to measure their working memory and inhibition control, two areas of executive function. They also gave the students several questionnaires designed to measure their emotional reactivity and mood over the previous week.

They found that some people who were in slightly bad moods performed significantly better on the working memory and inhibition tasks, but the benefit depended on how the person experienced emotion. Specifically, being in a bit of a bad mood seemed to boost the performance of participants with high emotional reactivity, meaning that they’re sensitive, have intense reactions to situations, and hold on to their feelings for a long time. People with low emotional reactivity performed worse on the tasks when in a bad mood, though.

“Our results show that there are some people for whom a bad mood may actually hone the kind of thinking skills that are important for everyday life,” one of the study’s co-authors, psychology professor Tara McAuley, said in a press statement. Why people with bigger emotional responses experience this boost but people with less-intense emotions don’t is an open question. One hypothesis is that people who have high emotional reactivity are already used to experiencing intense emotions, so they aren’t as fazed by their bad moods. However, more research is necessary to tease out those factors.

[h/t Big Think]

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7 Reasons Why You Should Let Your Kid Get Bored This Summer
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No matter how excited kids are for summer break, after a few weeks without school, they can start to feel a little bored. But as a parent, you shouldn't drive yourself crazy scheduling playdates, lessons, and other organized activities for your restless progeny. Instead, turn off the iPad, put down the camp brochure, and let them sit around the house moaning “I'm bored”—it can be good for them.

1. BOREDOM PROMOTES CREATIVITY ...

Research suggests the experience of boredom can lead to greater creativity because it allows minds to wander. In one 2014 study, researchers asked a group of participants to undertake boring activities like copying down telephone numbers from a directory. Then, they were tested for creativity—they had to come up with as many uses for a pair of foam cups as they could think of. The participants who had endured the boring tasks ended up thinking up more uses for the cups than those who hadn't. Boredom, the researchers wrote, "can sometimes be a force for good."

This isn't an entirely new idea. Another study conducted in Canada in the 1980s provides further evidence that boredom isn't always a bad thing: It found that kids who lived in towns with no televisions scored higher on imagination-related tests than kids who had TVs. Imagine what disconnecting from all of the screens available now could do for a kid's creativity.

2. ... AND MAKES THEM MORE INDEPENDENT.

Boredom can force kids to generate their own ideas about what they'd like to do—and what's feasible—then direct their own activities independently. "If parents spend all their time filling up their child's spare time, then the child's never going to learn to do this for themselves," Lyn Fry, a child psychologist, told Quartz in 2016. "Being bored is a way to make children self-reliant."

3. BOREDOM FOSTERS PROBLEM SOLVING.

In The Boredom Solution: Understanding and Dealing with Boredom, teacher and author Linda Deal advises that it's important to let kids learn to deal with their boredom themselves because it helps them learn to make decisions about how to use their free time. They need to learn to "see the problem of boredom as one within their control," she writes, which can help them come up with constructive ways to solve it rather than simply getting hopeless or angry about it, as kids sometimes do in situations they don't have control over. Kids learn that boredom isn't an insurmountable obstacle.

4. IT MOTIVATES THEM TO SEEK NEW EXPERIENCES.

In a 2012 study published in Perspectives on Psychological Science, researchers sought to define what, exactly, boredom is. "At the heart of it is our desire to engage with the world or some other mental activity, and that takes attention," co-author Mark Fenske, an associate professor at the University of Guelph, explained at the time. "When we cannot do this—that seems to be what leads to frustration and the aversive state we call 'boredom.'" When kids (and adults) are bored, especially with activities that were once engaging, they're motivated to try new things.

5. BOREDOM CAN HELP THEM MAKE FRIENDS ...

According to a pair of psychologists from Texas A&M University, boredom might have a social role. They argue that it "expresses to others that a person is seeking change and stimulation, potentially prompting others to respond by assisting in this pursuit." Being bored can push kids to go out and be more social, and have fun through activities. When there's not much to do, hanging out with the new kid down the block (or even your little brother) suddenly seems a lot more appealing.

6. ... AND FIGURE OUT THEIR INTERESTS.

Both at school and at home, kids are often required to participate in a range of activities. Having the time and space to do nothing can help kids figure out what they actually like to do. "Children need to sit in their own boredom for the world to become quiet enough that they can hear themselves," psychologist Vanessa Lapointe writes at the Huffington Post. This downtime allows kids to direct their own activities without adult input. Pressed to come up with their own entertainment, they might discover a love of writing plays, baking cookies, biking, crafting, or perfecting their jump shot.

7. IT CAN HELP THEM FIND MEANING IN THEIR LIVES.

According to one 2011 study, boredom forced people to reflect on meaning in their lives, prompting them to seek out meaningful activities like donating blood. While the study only examined adults, who may be more inclined to search for purpose, boredom can nonetheless push kids to undertake activities they might otherwise find unappealing—whether that means helping out with the dishes or agreeing to go volunteer for the day—or could even inspire them to make the world a better place.

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