Can't put your phone down?

Scientists may have put their finger on why: our "hyper-social" desire to connect with other people.

"There is a lot of panic surrounding this topic," said Professor Samuel Veissiere, a psychiatry researcher at Canada's McGill University and lead author of a new study on the topic.

"We're trying to offer some good news and show that it is our desire for human interaction that is addictive - and there are fairly simple solutions to deal with this."

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We all know people who, seemingly incapable of living without the bright screen of their phone for more than a few minutes, are constantly texting and checking out what friends are up to on social media.

These are examples of what many consider to be the antisocial behaviour brought on by smartphone addiction, a phenomenon that has garnered media attention in the past few months and led investors and consumers to demand that tech giants address this problem.

But what if we were looking at things the wrong way?

Could smartphone addiction be hyper-social, not anti-social?

Veissiere said the desire to watch and monitor others - but also to be seen and monitored by others - ran deep in our evolutionary past.

Humans evolved to be a uniquely social species and require constant input from others to seek a guide for culturally appropriate behaviour.

This was also a way for them to find meaning, goals, and a sense of identity.

Veissiere and colleagues reviewed current literature on dysfunctional use of smart technology through an evolutionary lens.

They found that the most addictive smartphone functions all shared a common theme: they tap into the human desire to connect with other people.

While smartphones harness a normal and healthy need for sociality, Veissiere agreed the pace and scale of hyper-connectivity pushed the brain's reward system to run on overdrive, which could lead to unhealthy addictions.

Turning off push notifications and setting up appropriate times to check your phone could go a long way to regain control over smartphone addiction.

Research suggests that workplace policies "that prohibit evening and weekend emails" were also important.

"Rather than start regulating the tech companies or the use of these devices, we need to start having a conversation about the appropriate way to use smartphones," Veissiere said.

"Parents and teachers need to be made aware of how important this is."

The power of... holding hands

Holding hands could have more benefits than we realise, researchers say. Photo / 123RF
Holding hands could have more benefits than we realise, researchers say. Photo / 123RF

Reach for the hand of a loved one in pain and not only will your breathing and heart rate synchronise with theirs, your brain wave patterns will couple up too.

That's according to new research by US and Israeli scientists, who further found that the more empathy a comforting partner felt for a partner in pain, the more their brainwaves fell into sync.

And the more those brain waves synchronised, the more the pain goes away.

The new study was the latest in a growing body of research exploring a phenomenon known as "interpersonal synchronisation", in which people physiologically mirror the people they are with.

It was the first to look at brain wave synchronisation in the context of pain, and offered new insight into the role brain-to-brain coupling may play in touch-induced analgesia, or healing touch.

Pavel Goldstein, a postdoctoral pain researcher at University of Colorado Boulder, came up with the experiment after, during the delivery of his daughter, he discovered that when he held his wife's hand, it eased her pain.

"I wanted to test it out in the lab: Can one really decrease pain with touch, and if so, how?"

He and his colleagues at University of Haifa recruited 22 heterosexual couples, age 23 to 32 who had been together for at least one year and put them through several two-minute scenarios as electroencephalography (EEG) caps measured their brainwave activity.

The scenarios included sitting together not touching; sitting together holding hands; and sitting in separate rooms.

Then they repeated the scenarios as the woman was subjected to mild heat pain on her arm.

Merely being in each other's presence, with or without touch, was associated with some brain wave synchronicity in the alpha mu band, a wavelength associated with focused attention.

If they held hands while she was in pain, the coupling increased the most.

Researchers also found that when she was in pain and he couldn't touch her, the coupling of their brain waves diminished.

This matched the findings from a previously published paper from the same experiment
which found that heart rate and respiratory synchronisation disappeared when the male study participant couldn't hold her hand to ease her pain.

"It appears that pain totally interrupts this interpersonal synchronisation between couples and touch brings it back," Goldstein said.

Subsequent tests of the male partner's level of empathy revealed that the more empathetic he was to her pain the more their brain activity synced.

The more synchronised their brains, the more her pain subsided.

How exactly could coupling of brain activity with an empathetic partner kill pain?

More studies are needed to find out, Goldstein stressed.

But he and his co-authors offer a few possible explanations.

Empathetic touch could make a person feel understood, which in turn - according to previous studies - could activate pain-killing reward mechanisms in the brain.

"Interpersonal touch may blur the borders between self and other," the researchers wrote.

The study did not explore whether the same effect would occur with same-sex couples, or what happens in other kinds of relationships.

The takeaway for now, Pavel said: Don't underestimate the power of a hand-hold.

"You may express empathy for a partner's pain, but without touch it may not be fully communicated."