By Sharon Kay
The positive impact of a firm and friendly handshake may date back to ancient times, but how our brains process the act has just been revealed in a new study in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience.
Handshakes not only reinforced positive feelings about a stranger, but reduced the potential negative impression of a first encounter.
"Many of our social interactions may go wrong for a reason or another, and a simple handshake preceding them can give us a boost and attenuate the negative impact of possible misunderstandings,” says neuroscience researchers Florin Dolcos and Sanda Dolcos, who led the study at the University of Illinois.
The Dolcos studied 18 men and women who watched animated videos of people encountering one another for the first time in a business-type of setting. The researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure blood flow in the brain, and measured sweat levels, much like a lie detector test, to see how excited each subject became. The Dolcos were able to measure how people felt and how their brains responded.
The handshake lit up the region of the brain associated with reward — the nucleus accumbens. This same region responds to simple pleasurable moments or the anticipation of something that produces pleasure, such as food, an affectionate touch, and sex, says Florin Dolcos. It's also the part of the brain that might be dysfunctional in people with addictions, he adds.
Previous studies have looked at static images. Combined with insight into brain activity, sweat response, and feedback from participants, Florin Dolcos says science, not just good business training, confirms the value of a handshake.
"Not a very long time ago you could get a loan based on a handshake. So it conveys something very important, very basic," says Florin Dolcos. "We knew these things intuitively but now we also have the scientific support."
And what about cultures where people don't shake hands? "I would expect that in southeastern cultures where bowing is an important aspect of greeting you might see comparable results, but we don't yet have the science to back that up," says Florin Dolcos. He noted, however, that because Western cultural values have spread throughout the business world, the brain of someone in another culture might also react favorably if they understood the meaning of a handshake.