Study: Happy Marriage Calms Nerves

When things get rough, a hand to hold can be comforting—especially if it's the hand of marriage. A new study finds that women in a threatening situation show signs of immediate relief, as revealed in brain scans, when holding their husband’s hand.

“This is the first study of the neurological reactions to human touch in a threatening situation, and the first study to measure how the brain facilitates the health-enhancing properties of close social relationships,” said study author James Coan, a neuroscientist at the University of Virginia.

Coan conducted a study of 16 married women who were subjected to a mild electric shock while holding their husband’s hand, a stranger’s hand, or no hand at all.

MRI scans of the womens' brains showed a large decrease in the brain response to threat when the women held their spouse’s hand, and a limited decrease when holding a stranger’s hand.

Coan also had the couples rate their satisfaction with their marriages, and found the largest decrease in threat-related brain activity for women in the highest quality marriages.

This drop in threat-related activity included a decrease in the emotional component of the brain’s pain processing circuits.

The study was published in the December 2006 issue of the journal Psychological Science.