Palm-to-Palm: The Science of Holding Hands

With Valentine’s Day creeping ever closer, it may be prudent to take a step back and examine that display of affection celebrated on this day of love (and, well, every other day of the year). Few sensations compare to the feeling of the skin-on-skin contact, the intermingling of body parts, the rhythmic motions back and forth—there’s nothing quite like holding hands.

Handholding is a phenomenon seen daily. It is a means by which two people can show affection for one another and declare to the public their connection, whatever connection that may be.

“Humans hold hands for a lot of reasons, but the primary one is to communicate affection, availability and trustworthiness,” stated Jim Coan, associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia.

Phillip Carlisle, Indianapolis, IN, sophomore and obsessive hand holder, says handholding is his way of feeling close to people.

“Sometimes I feel alone,” Carlisle said. “Not because there’s nobody in the room, but because sometime I just don’t feel other people. It’s also something my mother (and grandmother—before she died) was big on. It makes me feel connected to people.”

Though it can have different meanings across cultures, handholding is a global phenomenon that various sciences have attempted to explain for years.

According to physiologist Bradley Rabquer, assistant professor of biology at Albion College, the importance of the hand may be due to the extra number of free nerve endings housed there.

“Our hands are specialized to have more receptors,” Rabquer said. “If someone is holding your hand versus holding your forearm, it’s going to be felt differently.”

Rabquer admits that there is certainly something special about the hands. He speculates that there may be a connection between the importance of the hand in the development of the human species and the importance of handholding as an affectionate gesture today.

“We’ve evolved to have specialized functions with our hands, which allows us to do the things we do,” Rabquer said. “Because of the extra nerve endings we have there, we have the higher sense of touch in our hands, and so, over time, I’m sure that’s correlated with our emotional development and now in relationships, having this connection with hand holding as either comforting or romantic.”

However, physiology fails at this point to provide a complete answer to the mystery of handholding. Here Rabquer passes the baton to psychology, because he says that it is in the brain where one distinguishes between the pressure of holding a notebook, for example, and the similar pressure of holding a hand and subsequently connects an emotional response to the latter. Unfortunately, it seems psychological science is also without a definite answer for how this environmental action translates into romantic feelings.

“We know when you experience certain emotions that we will see activation in a particular area of the brain, but we don’t know how that pattern of activation literally translates into the experience of emotion,” said Eric Hill, assistant professor of psychology.  “We haven’t yet mapped that out in detail, at least to my knowledge.”

Though unable to say exactly why hand holding can be emotionally connecting, Hill does claim that the structure of the brain, especially the cerebral cortex, certainly testifies to the importance of the hands.

“The amount of space that’s allocated on the cortex to process that information is proportional to the amount of information that’s coming in, and there is a much larger portion of your brain allocated to process sensory information from your hands, because there are so many sensory receptors than, say, from your back,” Hill said.

Hill says that the same is true for lips. There is a comparatively large proportion of the sensory cortex allocated to process information from the lips. Though one can speculate that the increased amount of sensory information coming from these two sources could be the source of their being considered more intimate gestures today, Hill is wary about making that assumption.

“It makes sense, but I can’t speak to that scientifically,” Hill said. “There’s no real way to test it, but theoretically it makes sense.”

That said, Hill does say that touch, in general, seems to play an important role in the formation of attachments. He cites a classic study by Harry Harlow, who raised baby monkeys in a cage with two surrogate mother monkeys. One monkey was made of wire and had a feeding mechanism, and the other was made of cloth, but did not feed or otherwise provide the baby with any sort of nourishment.

“The baby monkeys spent significantly more time touching and being around the cloth mother, despite the fact that the other surrogate mother was providing them with nourishment, which Harlow and others have suggested that there is some innate aspect to the role of touch and tactile sensation in forming attachments,” Hill said.

Coan offers more evidence that hand holding has specific effects on the brain. He says that the act of holding someone’s hand can be a means of relaxing the brain when in stressful situations. If a stranger holds your hand, the action activates the threat-responsive parts of the brain.  Oppositely, the mind is calmed by holding hands with familiar people.

“Only a trusted friend, romantic partner or parent calms regions of the brain associated with vigilance for possible future threats,” Coan stated.

Coan’s research hints at a more primal aspect of handholding. Though he cannot trace the origins of handholding precisely, Dalton Conley, university professor of sociology and dean of the social sciences at New York University, says that touch was always a means for humans to come together.

“I don’t think we have any idea what the origins of physical contact were,” Conley stated. “Mutual grooming was probably a common activity that facilitated social bonding.”

The social bonding Conley brings up is not just for couples. Holding hands brings all sorts of people together.

James (Jimmy) McKee, Harrison senior and a leader of the Chapel group, says that groups of people can hold hands as a way of bringing everyone together.

“Holding hands in prayer, though not explicitly stated in the Bible, is an act of agreement with one another before God,” McKee said.  “Also, holding hands brings a sense of community and unity to those participating.”

Whatever the context, hand holding seems to be an important means of communication, so don’t be afraid to reach for a hand this Valentine’s Day and let someone know you care. Just be sure to wash first—nobody wants to hold a dirty hand.

About Travis Trombley 36 Articles
Professional undergraduate student, prospective teacher, hopeful writer, and wearer of superhero-themed socks.

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

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