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Friday, September 24, 2021

Heart to heart

With Valentine’s Day just recently passed and spring upon us, you may be feeling closer than ever to your romantic partner. Most couples take this season to spend time together and do things they like or invest more energy in the common ground they have. But it turns out that activities and interests are not the only things that good couples share.

A UC Davis study has found that couples not only have their interests in sync, but over time their heartbeats and respiratory patterns can sync up as well.

“Physiological responses are tightly linked to emotion. For example, if someone is upset then [they] tend to breath faster and have an increased heart rate,” said Jonathan Helm, the main author of the study. “Since physiology shares a link with emotion and affect, we wanted to see if the connection between couples’ affective states also shows up as a link in physiological states.”

The researchers used 32 heterosexual couples in a series of exercises to find their data. Emilio Ferrer, a researcher in the UC Davis Department of Psychology who assisted in the study, stated that the first exercise of the experiment asked the couples to sit across from each other while blindfolded. Next, the blindfolds were removed and they were asked to make eye contact without touching or speaking to one another.

“We wanted to see if there was a connection at the baseline level,” Ferrer said.

The baseline level refers to the the initial readings of heart rate and respiration used for comparison with values relating to an external stimulus. Physical contact with one another could have disrupted the data, hence why the couples were not allowed to touch.

Ferrer said the exercises that followed included one in which the couples were told to mimic one anothers’ actions but still avoid physical contact, and another test in which they were told to discuss the positive aspects of their relationship. The researchers found that the couples’ breathing and heartbeats were synced with one another.

When the data was shuffled around to mismatch couples, there was no correlation between the randomly paired individuals, implying that they will only sync with their significant other. However, similar studies have found that the physiological bond can be found in people who are related or simply have known one another for a long period of time.

Phillip R. Shaver, a professor in the UC Davis Department of Psychology, discussed how people often unconsciously mimic each other for underlying reasons regarding the attachment theory.

According to Shaver, humans are social creatures and naturally seek acceptance on many levels. Even if a previous connection does not exist, individuals can sync with people other than romantic partners when a strong connection is desired.

More research into this area could lead to answers regarding phenomena such as “takotsubo cardiomyopathy,” also known as “broken heart syndrome.” While most people consider the ailment a myth, research has shown that couples who have been together for 20 to 50 years can suddenly be affected by improper muscular movement in the heart, and in some cases, die shortly after a loved one passes away.

A study in 2008 showed women who lost their partners were more than twice as likely to die and men were six times more likely. Helm discussed the syndrome and its relation to his work.

“It’s hard to make a strong statement about the two phenomena, but there is theory to support a connection. Attachment theory suggests that we use partners (mother, fathers, sisters, brothers, romantic others, etc.) to help regulate physiology,” Helm said. “A simpler way of saying this [is that] the presence of close others promotes physiological homeostasis. Hence, we naturally seek the company of those [close to us] because they make our world more pleasant, both emotionally and physiologically.”

NICOLE NOGA can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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