When we experience arts together, our bodies synchronise. Could this help our politics?

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We might think of the experience we have when we go to the theatre, movies or a gig as a primarily individual one. Or, perhaps, only shared with our closest companions. But research in psychology and neuroscience is showing that these are very much collective experiences. Our heart and brain are literally synchronizing with that of the rest of the audience. 

This article in WIRED refers to a series of experiments conducted by Uri Hasson, a psychologist at Princeton University and explains how the brain activity of a cinema audience is, to a remarkable degree, synchronized.

New research led by the UCL Division of Psychological and Language Sciences (PaLS) has recently found that watching a live theatre performance can synchronize our heartbeat with other people in the audience, regardless of whether we know them or not:

The research was conducted by Dr Joe Devlin, Dr Daniel C. Richardson, John Hogan (all Department of Experimental Psychology) and Dr Helen Nuttall (Lancaster University). The team monitored the heart rates and electro dermal activity of 12 audience members at a live performance of the West End musical Dreamgirls. The team found that as well as alongside individuals’ emotional responses, the audience members’ hearts were also responding in unison, with their pulses speeding up and slowing down at the same rate.

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Dr Devlin, who led the study, said: “Usually, a group of individuals will each have their own heart rates and rhythms, with little relationship to each other. But romantic couples or highly effective teammates will actually synchronise their hearts so that they beat in time with each other, which in itself is astounding.”

 

According to Encore Tickets, 59% of people say they have felt emotionally affected by a live performance, and 46% say they enjoy the theatre experience because of the atmosphere that comes with being in the audience.

Dr Devlin said, “Experiencing the live theatre performance was extraordinary enough to overcome group differences and produce a common physiological experience in the audience members.”

This synchrony continued even into the interval, between audience members who knew each other. Dr Devlin explained: “Our hypothesis is that it’s at this point, the interval, that the audience members are engaged with each other, discussing the show within their social groups. During this social interaction with each other, we can see that their in-group arousal synchronises with each other but not with the audience members as a whole.

“This clearly demonstrates that the physiological synchrony observed during the performance was strong enough to overcome social group differences and engage the audience as a whole.”

This research follows the team’s previous findings, which found that experiencing a live theatre performance could stimulate your cardiovascular system to the same extent as a 28-minute workout.

Another research looked into how students' brains sync up when they're engaging in class. Here's an extract from an article on Smithsonian.com:

A growing body of brain-scanning research is beginning to reveal how human brains display synchronicity—likely a key factor that makes many of our cooperative behaviors possible, from performance art to team sport.

“If you pay more attention, you’re more in sync,” explains Suzanne Dikker, a cognitive neuroscientist at both New York University and Utrecht University in the Netherlands and a co-author on the new study. “Now we’ve gone out there and confirmed that this is true in a real world setting,” she says.

That remarkable feat was made possible thanks to portable electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets, which researchers used to monitor students’ brain activity during an entire semester of biology classes at a New York high school. Each week, 12 high school seniors and their teacher attended class wearing the headsets, for a total of 11 classes overall. The more engaged those students were with their teacher and classmates, it turned out, the more their brainwave patterns were in sync with one another.

“The central hub seems to be attention,” says Dikker. “But whatever determines how attentive you are can stem from various sources from personality to state of mind. So the picture that seems to emerge is that it’s not just that we pay attention to the world around us; it’s also what our social personalities are, and who we’re with.” The results were published this week in the journal Current Biology.

To bolster the brainwave data, Dikker and her colleagues had the students complete pre and post-class questionnaires on a number of factors she suspected might be linked to different brain activities. For instance: how focused they were on any given day, how much they enjoyed their teacher, how much they liked each individual student around them, and their satisfaction levels with different group activities they performed in class.

After analyzing a semester’s worth of brain activity data and comparing it to the self-reported student data, a pattern emerged. During the times when students’ brain waves were more in sync with one another, they were also more engaged with the class. Moreover, the more in sync they were, the more likely they were to have given the course and its teacher high marks.

Classroom experiences weren’t the only factor that predicted how much students’ brains were likely to sync up, however. Whether individuals considered themselves to be group people also seems to have played a role. Students categorized themselves on the group affinity scale by indicating whether they agreed with statements like “social groups really shape who we are as individuals.”

“I’m personally intrigued by the finding that personality effects synchrony with the people around you as well,” says Dikker. “If you’re a person who likes to be in groups in general, then you’re going to be more in sync with the people around you.” This was true even when such people weren’t interacting with the group at all but were simply watching the teacher lecture or watching a video, she adds.

The researchers also found that a one-on-one interaction prior to class could alter the way people reacted during the group’s shared experience. In the study, student pairs who reported feeling closer to one another also tended to experience more brain synchronicity during class—but only when they had spent time face-to-face just before the class began.

“How much they liked each other only seemed to matter if they had actually interacted with one another,” she says. “So your likelihood of keeping that person in your periphery, and kind of paying attention them, is higher if you’ve already interacted with each other before class.”

The study’s real world methods are, in fact, as intriguing as its results. As EEG technology becomes more portable and affordable, scientists will likely gain more insight into what our brains are up to while we’re out living our lives. Headsets like the ones Dikker’s high school students learned to use might help us understand the progression of neurological diseases. They could also help identify the environments in which each of our brains functions at its best—and that kind of performance-boosting road map would be welcomed by students and the rest of us alike.  

This is interesting indeed. How can we use this information in beneficial ways?

In our political laboratories we will use art and music to bring participants into a shared, collective and visceral experience. One in which our differences of opinion, age, culture and class are diminished and our whole focus moves from the apparent limitations in the room to a realisation of our endless opportunities. 

The research supports our conviction that art can truly connect us - and thus is an essential tool for a new politics.