The power of synchrony
Doing things together makes us happier – on synchrony in religion and Kanye West's Sunday Service
I guess it was inevitable but I finally got Covid. After a few years of dodging it, at some point in the last week, enough coronavirus entered my lungs to knock me off my feet. Thankfully I don’t have the most serious of symptoms but I am self-isolating away from my family, friends and co-workers.
As I sit here in this room sleeping, reading and watching TV, I yearn for covid to be gone so I can go back and hug my kids. Isolation makes me extra aware of the human desire to be together with others.
This desire runs deep. We are social animals and our minds yearn for groups. Doing activities at the same time, together, makes us happier, healthier and more bonded.
A little while ago I saw a study that really shocked me: The study analyzed rowers and found that working out alone only provided half the endorphin benefits as the same exertion would have from rowing on a virtual boat with others. In other words, the same physical activity but done together with others, can make people way happier.
What is going on here? How deep does this go and how do we do more of this?
Synchrony & Religion: doing things together makes us feel better and makes us closer
The study of the rowers is actually quite interesting so let me quote it a bit in detail. This is from “How Religion Evolved: And Why it Endures” whose author, Robin Dunbar, did the study:
I first became aware of the significance of synchrony through a study we did of coxed-eight rowing crews. We studied these not in boats, but in the gym using the rowing machines, or ergs, that rowers train on. We first tested our subjects (all top athletes from an elite rowing team) on their own and then, the following week, rowing in unison together as a virtual boat.
The physical effort of rowing produced an endorphin effect (at least as measured by elevated pain thresholds after the task), just as might be expected; but rowing in synchrony ramped this effect up by 100 percent compared to when they rowed alone, even without any increase in the effort involved (as we could tell from the ergs’ computers). Something about rowing in synchrony increased the endorphin output. We still don’t know how or why this happens, but our rowing study has been replicated by others and we have shown exactly the same effect in a series of studies using dance moves.
Since these studies were done, a number of other studies have looked at synchrony in more detail. One asked people to perform a set of simple arm movements alone or in or out of synchrony with a confederate and showed that, when the subject and confederate were in close synchrony, pain thresholds rose and the subject trusted the confederate more; at the same time, synchrony independently increased the sense of bonding between them, and that in turn enhanced liking and cooperation.
Dunbar is an anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist specializing in primate behavior.1 He is focused on the “neuroendocronological mechanisms that underpin social bonding in primates” so that is the lens that he brings to his analysis of religion. His main thesis is that synchronous religious rituals (e.g., singing, dancing together) emerged as a way to drive group cohesion among large groups of humans.
Below is Dunbar on this topic. I’ve interspersed his writing with videos of the dances he’s referring to so you can get a feeling for the synchrony (if you can, I recommend watching a bit of the videos as you read):
Rhythmic singing and dancing play a particularly important role in many religious rituals. Vigorous dance forms a central part of African and Pentecostal Christian services. In the Ethiopian Coptic Church, the dabtara (deacons) dance formally before the altar, representing the Ark of the Covenant before which, as the Bible tells us, King David danced. In fact, what they actually do is a form of slow swaying while tapping the ground with prayer sticks, often accompanied by chanting, drums and sistra.
Similarly, the nineteenth-century Shakers were famous for the slow dances that formed a central part of their services.
In both these cases, the dances have a hypnotic effect not unlike the slow rise and fall of Gregorian chant in the monastic tradition of the Catholic Church.
Chanting also forms an important part of Buddhist services, often in a very monotonous style and in a very low vocal register – in some forms of Tibetan Buddhism, in a vocal register (throat-or overtone singing) so low as to be beyond the range of untrained individuals.
Rhythmic sensory stimulation, combined with low vocal tones, plays a particularly important role in the Sun Dance rituals of the American Plains Indians and the Spirit Dance of the Salish of the Northwest Coast. William Grey Walter, one of the founding fathers of neuroscience, showed in a seminal series of studies in the 1930s that an intense, steep-fronted sound such as that produced by a drum maximizes the sensory stimulation of the inner ear hearing mechanism. Then, in the 1960s, studies of the phenomenon known as auditory driving (the process by which particular sounds induce trance states) showed that this effect is best produced by a low frequency, high amplitude sound, such as that produced by a drum rhythm of three, four, six or eight beats per second.
In Dunbar’s telling, it all comes back to the endorphin system - we do these rituals to feel better, which in turn makes us more trusting, drives social cohesion and also has the benefit of strengthening our immune system and pain tolerances.
Taken together, these studies suggest that rituals trigger the endorphin system, and hence play an important role in creating a sense of belonging, of community bonding. Synchrony seems to play an especially strong role in this respect by exaggerating the magnitude of the endorphin effect, though it is not entirely clear how or why it does so. In this respect, rituals are much like laughter, singing and dancing in more conventional secular contexts. Although the meaning or religious significance of a ritual on its own seems to be of much less importance than we might have anticipated, in combination with synchrony it gives added value and significantly increases the bonding aspect of rituals.
One of the other reasons these rituals are so important is that typical ways that primates get cohesion don’t scale with group size. Touching, grooming, patting each other on the head, back, arms, hugs, etc., all make us (and other primates) feel happier and more bonded, but as we build giant communities of humans, we can’t keep up. Luckily (or perhaps as a result of selection pressures), much of the same boost in endorphins can be recreated through social synchrony: groups dancing, singing, large group rituals with alcohol, telling sad stories, etc. All of these activities bind us and act “like grooming at a distance.”
The impact of “grooming at a distance” is quite significant. For instance, studies consistently show that singing in a choir is one of the best things you can do for wellbeing. From Daniel Pink’s “When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing:
Several studies demonstrate that choral singing delivers a significant boost to positive mood. It also lifts self-esteem while reducing feelings of stress and symptoms of depression. It enhances one’s sense of purpose and meaning, and increases sensitivity toward others. And these effects come not from singing per se but from singing in a group. For example, people who sing in choirs report far higher well-being than those who sing solo.
However, it’s not just about religion - a lot of the same boost in endorphins, trust and social cohesion can also come from just doing things together in more synchronous ways.
Elements of Strong Synchrony
When you look at strongly bonded groups, you can find many consistent elements at play. Here are a some from Daniel Pink’s “When.” (the quotes below are from the book):
Garb: The way we dress can drive stronger cohesion and synchrony. E.g., how uniforms are used in the military and restaurants:
“Take elite restaurants, whose inner workings are one part ballet, another part military invasion. Auguste Escoffier, one of the pioneers of French cuisine, believed that clothing created synchrony. “Escoffier disciplined, drilled, and dressed his chefs,” one analyst writes. “Uniforms enforced erect posture and bearing. The double breasted white jacket became the standard to emphasize cleanliness and good sanitation. More subtly, these jackets helped infuse a sense of loyalty, inclusion and pride amongst the chefs, between them and the rest of the restaurant staff.”
Touch: actually touching / patting / high-fives, all drive synchrony and group cohesion:
“Even after controlling for the obvious factors that affect basketball outcomes—for example, the quality of players—they found that touch predicted both individual and team performance. “Touch is the most highly developed sense at birth, and preceded language in hominid evolution,” they write. “[T]ouch increases cooperative behavior within groups, which in turn enables better group performance.” Touching is a form of synching, a primal way to indicate where you are and where you’re going. “Basketball has evolved its own language of touch,” they write. “High fives and fist bumps, seemingly small dramatic demonstrations during group interactions, have a lot to say about the cooperative workings of a team, and whether the team wins or loses.”
Clear time-keeper (aka “zeitgeber” or “time giver”): “The first principle of synching … is that group timing requires a boss—someone or something above and apart from the group itself to set the pace, maintain the standards, and focus the collective mind”. E.g., from competitive rowing:
“The boat can’t move at its fastest pace without the eight rowers exquisitely synchronized with one another. But they can’t synch effectively without [the coxswain]. Their speed depends on someone who never touches an oar […] For group timing, the boss is above, apart, and essential.”
Aligned mission and shared background: When analyzing the synchrony of Indian dabbawalas (the set of thousands of people that deliver lunches throughout Mumbai without advanced technology), one key aspect is their shared background:
“The shared language and home villages create what he calls “a brotherly feeling.” And that sense of affiliation, like the codes on the lunches, produces an informal understanding that allows the walas to anticipate one another’s actions and move in harmony.
And finally, synchronous movement. Here is “The Extended Mind” describing the powerful psychological and physical impact that comes from military drills:
Synchronous movement […] reliably produces what the late historian William McNeill called “muscular bonding.” He maintained that the long-standing dominance of European armies over other fighting forces was due in part to the psychological effect of close-order drill, a practice that took root in the Netherlands in the sixteenth century before spreading to other European nations. Soldiers spent hours marching in formation, their movements tightly coordinated—thereby creating a mental and emotional bond that elevated their performance on the battlefield.
[…] “Words are inadequate to describe the emotion aroused by the prolonged movement in unison that drilling involved,” he wrote. “A sense of pervasive well-being is what I recall; more specifically, a strange sense of personal enlargement; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to participation in collective ritual.” McNeill continued, “Obviously, something visceral was at work; something, I later concluded, far older than language and critically important in human history, because the emotion it arouses constitutes an indefinitely expansible basis for social cohesion among any and every group that keeps together in time, moving big muscles together and chanting, singing, or shouting rhythmically.”
What happened to McNeill and his comrades on that “dusty, graveled patch of the Texas plain” was surely the product of behavioral synchrony, of moving together in a coordinated manner. But there was likely another factor affecting them as well: not just shared movement but shared arousal. Their bodies’ common response to the physical exertion of marching, the heat of the sun, the shouted commands of their superiors—this too supported the emergence of a group mind.
Put all of these things together and you get a virtuous cycle. From Daniel Pink:
The consequence [of synchrony] is a virtuous circle of good feeling and improved coordination. Feeling good promotes social cohesion, which makes it easier to synchronize. Synchronizing with others feels good, which deepens attachment and improves synchronization further still.
Kanye West’s Sunday Service
A recent example of all of these elements creating a powerful experience is Kanye West’s Sunday Service. If you haven’t ever seen this church-like service, you should click on the video below and watch a few seconds. You can feel the energy that is generated even without being there:
It’s striking how similar this is to the Ethiopian Orthodox Communion Dance I linked to above. It’s different music but it feels really similar. The Sunday Service has all of the elements of powerful synchrony:
Everyone wears the same clothes
There is lots of touching, clapping, hugging
There is a clear time-giver through the beat of the music and the conductor
There’s a shared values/heart alignment since the songs are Christian
There is physical synchrony through singing and swaying/dancing
Why did Kanye make this? His explanation is rather simple. From his interview with David Letterman:
It's just an idea we had to open up our hearts to make music that we felt was as pure and as positive as possible and just do it for an hour every Sunday, and have something where people can just come together and feel good with their families.
Without actively wanting to do so, Kanye created something very similar to the old Orthodox Ethiopian ceremonies (and ceremonies far before that). When you pull the right elements together and generate synchrony, the impact can be powerful; you can watch the clip below to see how Letterman was blown away by the event: “It was so moving and inspirational that I wish my family had been there for this because there’s no way I will be able to explain to them what a lovely hour this was.”
We’ve gotten rid of so many of these types of rituals in our modern world that we are shocked when we feel the impact of synchrony tapping into parts of our psyche we didn’t know we had.
Here are a few more videos of the event in case you’re interested (they also sometimes do performances with a big audience). Here the group is singing Kanye’s “Ultralight Beam”:
And here they are singing “Lord You’re Holy Ballin’”:
This post has already gotten way longer than I would have hoped so I will stop here with a provocation:
We, humans, are made to synchronize. It’s one of the strongest mechanisms we have to feel connected to each other and to enhance our wellbeing. What can we do to have more of it in our world? In what ways might we create more synchrony in our communities, work and in our lives to be happier and feel more connected?
More on this next time…
Photo of group dancing at the annual Stanford Pow Wow
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Robin Dunbar is also he of “the Dunbar Number”: i.e., the idea that the maximum group size humans can know intimately is 150.