Shaking Hands, The Science & Wisdom Behind

How your brain respond to a handshake. The neuroscience behind. 

How touch primes Oxytocin release which in turns releases dopamine.

Chemical exchange occurring between each individual and how their brain uses those to subconsciously asses the individuals.

How handshake engage emotions between two individuals

All you need to know.

People of various origin have their own ways of greeting their comrades. Sticking out your tongue is how the Tibetan greet each other. Ethiopian men touch shoulders, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, male friends touch foreheads. Many Asian people bow to each other when meeting. Kissing on the cheek, hugging in some European countries, as well as Arab countries.

However the most common physical way to greet people around the world remain the handshake.

The Origin of Handshake

Archaeological ruins and ancient texts show that the history of the handshaking most probably originated back in the 5th century B.C. in Greece. It was a symbol of peace, showing that neither person was carrying a weapon. Meanwhile, Muslim scholars tell that custom of handshaking was introduced by the people of Yemen.

What occurs the moment we shake hands with somebody?

As soon as you shake hands, the 5 following points starts to happen ;

  • There is a transfer of chemicals from one person to another which occurs during a handshake. This is the key point where each individual’s brain will assess the other.

  • A reinforced positive feelings begins to manifest between both persons.

  • Potential negative impression of a first encounter immediately drops impressively.

  • Trust is immediately established between the those persons at a subconscious level.

  • Your brain acts to creates a bond with that person encouraging you to meet them again.

Let’s see the science behind each of those 5 statements, what research and studies have shown. How a handshake shall affect our encounters and the impact on our brain.

Chemicals are released and chemo-signal are fired during handshake between 2 individuals.

Researchers of Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel conducted the following study to investigate the chemicals that are exchanged from one person to another during a handshake.

The Study 

  • 280 individuals were selected for the study and they were greeted with or without a handshake and close-circuit cameras were used to observe the individuals.

  • It was observed that the individuals who greeted with a handshake tended to keep their right hand close to their face during the conversation followed by often touching their cheek or nose with their hand.

The Scientists therefore hypothesized that this was a subtle manner of sniffing chemicals produced by the human body that were transferred from one person to another during the handshake.

  • To test their hypothesis, the individuals were fitted with nasal catheters to measure airflow.

"It was found that when a hand was in close proximity to the nose, airflow through the nasal passages doubled. In other words, the subject was sniffing."

The researchers also concluded that irrespective of your grip being firm or limp, handshake will still communicate information about you.


We may not notice it but we still have our instincts that acts on a subconscious level and operate subtly.

Mammals in general tend to greet each other by openly investigating the social "chemo-signals" given off at the beginning of the interaction. In other words, most mammals tend to smell each other at the start of an interaction.

This following study confirmed that chemicals are transferred hands during a handshake :

  • Content of sterile gloves used to shake the hands of the subjects were analyzed by the scientist.

  • Both squalene and hexadecanoic acid, chemicals thought to play a part in social signaling in dogs and rats, were transferred onto the gloves. Hence contributes to our first impression of someone.

How people feel and how their brains respond during a handshake ?

The study was conducted by neuroscience researchers Florin Dolcos and Sanda Dolcos, at the University of Illinois.

The Study 

  • 18 men and women who watched animated videos of people encountering one another for the first time in a business-type of setting.

  • To see how excited each subject between during the handshake moment, Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to measure blood flow in the brain, and measured sweat levels.

Therefore they were able to measure how people felt and how their brains responded during the handshake.

Surprisingly The handshake lit up the region of the brain associated with reward — the nucleus accumbens.

The Nucleus Accumbens is a reward processing region of the brain.


The same region that responds to simple pleasurable moments or the anticipation of something that produces pleasure, such as food, an affectionate touch, and sex, says Florin Dolcos.


When No Handshake, much lesser activity in the Nucleus Accumbens have been observed.

Furthermore, the study showed increased sensitivity to approach than to avoidance behavior in amygdala and superior temporal sulcus.

Therefore a more positive evaluation of approach behavior and a positive impact between the persons doing a handshake.

Journal Reference:

Sanda Dolcos, Keen Sung, Jennifer J. Argo, Sophie Flor-Henry, Florin Dolcos. The Power of a Handshake: Neural Correlates of Evaluative Judgments in Observed Social Interactions. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 2012; 1 DOI: 10.1162/jocn_a_00295

What is it about handshaking that seems to engage the emotions of the two participants?

To understand this, we must first know what is Oxytocin.

What is Oxytocin?

Briefly, Oxytocin a hormone and neuropeptide produced in the hypothalamus and released by the posterior pituitary.


It plays a role in social bonding. Oxtocin tells us it is safe to trust. It is like social glue, encouraging us to interact , brings about empathy and makes us want to get more into the other person.

A study conducted by Neuroscientist and oxytocin guru Paul Zak, officially Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in Claremont, reveals that touch primes the brain to release oxytocin.

The Study 

  • Half the participants received a 15-minute massage and then played an economic game in which they exchanged real money.

  • After being trusted by a stranger with money in the hope that they’d reciprocate, the brains of participants who got a massage released much more oxytocin than those who simply rested alone.

  • Amazingly, those who received massages returned 243 percent more money to the stranger who showed them trust than those who rested.

Therefore oxytocin do constitutes a sort of social glue and economic lubricant.

Furthermore recent research from Zak’s neuroeconomics lab has shown that the human brain uses oxytocin to unconsciously assess if a person is trustworthy using our memory of past encounters and all of our senses, including touch.

If the stranger is a good match for other trustworthy people, the brain releases oxytocin, telling us it is safe to trust.

However there seems to be much more to Oxytocin than encouraging social behavior and empathy.

Oxytocin in itself do much more than encouraging empathy and bonding people.


At the same time, oxytocin causes the release of dopamine in the brain’s reward center. Therefore associating the trustworthy person with pleasure.


The next time we meet this person, the trust assessment happens more quickly.


This is how oxytocin encourages what’s called “pro-social behavior.” That’s all the positive behaviors and feelings we share with others: love, trustworthiness, generosity, and compassion.

Further Studies conducted by Zak

Inhaling oxytocin have been shown to make people more trusting and more generous. It also increases empathy, that is the ability not to just see another person's side of things, but to feel the way he or she must feel.

How does it work, what starts up the Oxytocin System? Well by touch.., touching Primes the Brain to Learn and Care for Others.


The oxytocin system, which can be fired up by touch, allowed us, in ancient times, to enter into economic exchange with others.


Even in today's global economy, touch is vitally important to doing business. Our feelings about someone else, and the pleasure we feel in cooperating, is the foundation for trade with others. In other words, the power of a Handshake

Quite baffling all those things happening during that short moment of a handshake right? Well we should also note that not everybody appreciates handshake. The most famous handshake-phobic is real estate magnate Donald Trump.

Trump says in his blog, “I think that the only thing better than a good handshake is no handshake at all. I’ve long said that handshakes are a bad idea because of all the germs people spread when they shake hands.”


Well of course there’s so much to a handshake but we should note that sometimes, especially times where epidemic are raging we rather avoid shaking hands with others, but nevertheless the science behind the handshake remains rather extraordinary

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HealthFacts EST. 2020