From a handhold to just acknowledgement, the strength and comfort that a connection provides is powerful stuff indeed. Now, it’s been found that a photo can have the same comforting effects.
According to a study from the University California, Los Angeles (UCLA), the same way we instinctively know that contact with a loved one can help mitigate pain, the mere reminder of an absent beloved—including and especially a photograph—can deliver the same relief.
The study found that while just any old picture didn’t have an effect, pictures of people we love, from spouses to parents to children, activated parts of the brain associated with rewards. Those particular images sparked activity in reward centers within the amygdala, hypothalamus and medial orbitofrontal cortex, to be precise.
The group at UCLA studied 25 women and their boyfriends of more than six months. They subjected the women to different degrees of thermal stimulation—a sharp, prickling sensation—as they either held their boyfriend’s hand while he sat behind a curtain, held the hand of a male stranger behind a curtain, viewed a photograph of their boyfriend or viewed a photograph of a male stranger.
Holding their partner’s hand or viewing his photo decreased the women’s pain significantly more than touching or viewing a stranger—and the photo was just as effective as the physical contact the tests revealed.
The study added that the faces of romantic partners also decreased activity in major pain-processing areas, such as the left and right posterior insula. Because the reward centers in the brain reacted so strongly to the photos, the researchers on the study argue that the strength derived from romantic affection is not merely a distraction, as they likened their potency to that of a drug such as cocaine, which invigorates the same pleasure pathways.
Another interesting facet is that the scientists that conducted the study used prints, not digital images on a computer screen or smartphone. So keep a photo of someone near and dear to you for days you need a little support.