Friday, October 11, 2013
Recently, a friend asked me to accompany her as she received electric shocks while participating in a study to better understand friendship and attachment. (For real.) We drove to the University of Virginia, where electrodes were strapped to her ankles and she was pushed inside an MRI machine, and a test series consisting of images of either an “X” or an “O” flashed before her eyes. When an “O” appeared, she knew no shock was coming. But if an “X” popped up, she had a 20% chance of receiving a strong electric shock.
My job was to literally hold her hand through part of the process. The rest of the time, she either endured the test (and shocks) alone, or held the hand of a stranger (in this case, a UVA lab assistant). Sensors attached to her skull read neurologic activity in each case, measuring levels of fear and distress by reading brain activity in the areas associated with each.
The results were fascinating – and enlightening: the stress and fear experienced when going undergoing the shock test alone was far greater than when one connected to – in this case, holding the hand of – a close friend. (The results of this test and others will be further described in a forthcoming book by the intrepid Barbara Bradley Hagerty.)
She is not the only test subject in this now-famous “hand holding study” conducted by Professor Jim Coan of the University of Virginia (a protégé of marriage researcher and best-selling author John Gottman). Others who have taken the test have shown similar and striking results: when holding the hand of a trusted friend or spouse, not only did distress levels generated by the shocks decrease, but the experience itself was qualitatively different, with different parts of the brain being activated. Going through a trial with a friend is a fundamentally different neurological experience than going it alone.
Moreover, holding the hand of a stranger during the trial offered only minimal amelioration of anxiety. More important than the mere physical presence of another during the trial was the test subject’s assurance that she was literally in the grip of someone who loved her, in whom she could trust. Indeed, in a fascinating and disturbing finding, women in strained marriages actually showed more distress while holding the hand of their husband than they did while enduring the test alone – the presence of their husband registered neurologically as an additional threat to be navigated. Facing suffering in the grip of one who loves you is a measurably different experience than doing so without support.
Such fascinating research provides fresh insight into the repeated Biblical assurances that while each of us will experience “trials and trouble,” we have this promise and hope: that God “will never leave you nor forsake you,” that “neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God.”
While suffering may be inevitable, the promise of loving presence in its midst fundamentally alters the experience. And since experience shapes character, we are changed as well. Christ’s injunction to “remember that I am with you always, even unto the end of the world,” made millennia before the insights gleaned in a university lab, asserted not only an aspect of the divine nature, but also our own: that our suffering, our fears, and our very selves are transformed by love.
Recommended Readings & Resources:
Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul, SaltRiver Publishers, 2010.
David Brooks, The Social Animal, Random House, 2011.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Fingerprints of God, Riverhead, 2009.
Cicero, “On Friendship,” The Trinity Forum Reading, 2004.
Leo Tolstoy, “Two Old Men,” The Trinity Forum Reading, 1991.
Wendell Berry, “Hannah & Nathan,“ The Trinity Forum Reading, 2004.