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February 05, 2006

I wanna hold your ha-a-and!

My wife found this article in last Tuesday's New York Times interesting, but I found it troubling. Here's the thesis:

Married women under extreme stress who reach out and hold their husbands' hands feel immediate relief, neuroscientists have found in what they say is the first study of how human touch affects the neural response to threatening situations.

The soothing effect of the touch could be seen in scans of areas deep in the brain that are involved in registering emotional and physical alarm.

The women received significantly more relief from their husbands' touch than from a stranger's, and those in particularly close marriages were most deeply comforted by their husbands' hands, the study found.

The findings help explain one of the longest-standing puzzles in social science: why married men and women are healthier on average than their peers. Husbands and wives who are close tend to limit each other's excesses like drinking and smoking but not enough to account for their better health compared with singles, researchers say.
Oh, sure, I found it reassuring that after distinctly more than 20 years of marriage, my wife was willing to say, in the words of this article, that we were a "supercouple." But still, isn't there something troubling about the fact that these tests were conducted by strapping the women inside an MRI machine and administering shocks to their ankles? There's a sort of mad scientist flavor to it.
Lying in the jaws of an M.R.I. scanning machine and knowing that they would periodically receive a mild electric shock to an ankle, the women were noticeably apprehensive. Brain images showed peaks of activation in regions involved in anticipating pain, heightening physical arousal and regulating negative emotions, among other systems.

But the moment that they felt their husbands' hands — the men reached into the imaging machine — each woman's activity level plunged in all the regions gearing up for the threat. A stranger's hand also provided some comfort, though less so.
What I also found troubling about this is not that there's a dangling modifier in the paragraph immediately above but rather that when my wife was in labor, holding my hand didn't do a damn bit of good. For her or for me. And if it doesn't help in labor, what good is it? When's the next time you plan to administer electric shocks to your wife's ankles? Uh, wait a minute; don't tell me about that.