Musicians who "sync" together, in their bodies and brains, show us how to get joy from community
A fascinating column from the science magazine Nautilus, which deep-dives into the brain science of what happens when musicians play and are “in sync” with each other - intensely observing the moves and rhythms of their fellow players, and taking themselves to new heights in the process.
Is there a clue here for what we need to do to get to a more “collective psychology”, as Alex Evans is pursuing (blog here)? What are the conditions and processes that generating enough fellow-feeling in a group or community, to enable them to silence their “inner critics”, and let their response-abilities flow? (And as we’re constantly exploring at A/UK, what role do the arts and performance play in unlocking these fellow feelings?)
When you’re in sync with somebody, are you activating parts of your brain that are dormant when you’re alone? “Yes, the evidence suggests that’s the case,” Viskontas says. “Here’s an analogy. If you forget somebody’s name, the more you think about it, the harder it is to access. The name isn’t dormant. Access to it is blocked because your conscious cognitive resources are going in a different direction. When you start thinking about something else, or leave a room, it pops into your mind.
“The same can be true for being alone. When you’re alone and intensely focused on something, you’ve got an inner critic going, you’re monitoring yourself. When you have to respond to somebody else, and allow yourself to hear other thoughts, you forget the inner critic. You hear other parts of your brain talking more loudly, more clearly.
“If you’re a solo performer, it’s really hard to get completely immersed in what you’re doing. When you have to respond to somebody else, it’s easier to forget your inner critic.”
In her early years as a singer, Viskontas says, she had a tough time silencing her inner critic. “One of the things we work on as sopranos is that when we have to sing a high note, we want to float it, we want it to be completely free, but also have a real arc in terms of dynamics,” she says. “There were times when I tried to do it in rehearsal and couldn’t find the freedom in my voice that I wanted. Then all of a sudden in performance I feel like I have way more stamina, way more flexibility, and I can express that phrase much more the way that I want to than I ever did in rehearsal.”
Viskontas says the brain chemistry among musicians is what gets listeners high. “The way we interact with music is very much in line with developing empathy, and how we put ourselves in the shoes of the musician,” she explains. “Our brains mirror what we’re seeing. So when we’re in sync, many of the rhythms of our brains and bodies entrain—heart and respiration rates, certain brain wave patterns.
“When you’re moved by music, we see levels of the attachment-hormone oxytocin increase. People who sniff oxytocin before they play together are more in sync rhythmically. For all of us, these neurochemicals make us more attuned to the signals we use to understand each other’s behavior.”
I say to Viskontas that her research into the neurobiology of music is great for science journals. But what’s it done for her as a singer? She laughs, and answers that it’s helped her lure audiences into her vocal lair.
“My teacher used to say, ‘Indre, all the notes leading up to the high note are important. The high note doesn’t matter.’ I would say that’s nuts. They’re paying me for the high note. If I screw up the high note, everyone will remember.
“Then I read research about how the caudate nucleus, the ‘wanting’ part of your brain, tracks. There’s more dopamine in that area as you’re anticipating the climax of a musical piece. Once you get to the climax, you get a boost of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens, which is the ‘liking’ part of the brain. When I read that, I learned why all the notes leading up to the high note matter more.”
She continues. “If you don’t take the audience on a journey, showing them that just around the corner is this awesome thing, they won’t enjoy it as much. I used to think that I just need to feel the emotion and the audience will get it. Then I realized, No, I need to be a magician. If I went on stage and there was silence before I started to sing, I would think, ‘I need to get going, the audience is getting bored!’
“Now I realize the longer I can extend the silence, the better. I just stand up there and luxuriate in the tension that I’m creating by not singing. So that’s what I got from neuroscience, the insight that I need to get the audience’s brain in the right mode to enjoy what I’m about to do…”
When we’re in sync with others, we silence the critic in our brains, allow emotions to stir new neural connections, and become “more aware of our sensory environment,” Viskontas says. This mental state allows musicians to tap the flow of their fellow performers and create sounds they couldn’t shape alone. It’s a harmony that resounds beyond the concert hall.
“The pleasure and meaning we get from playing in sync underscores how rewarding it is when we feel connected to others,” Viskontas says. “There’s no a priori reason why this should be pleasurable—the way other drives like hunger and thirst yield pleasure because they keep us alive. But it’s more interesting than that. It gives us the suggestion that there is more to life than just ourselves.
‘The pain of social isolation shares neural underpinnings with physical pain. But the sense of belonging is comforting. It’s akin to a religious experience, where you feel the ecstasy of finding meaning in connecting with what you believe is a higher power.”
For many of us, music is that higher power. “It allows us to communicate with each other in ways that transcend language, in ways that transcend these other kind of barriers we have,” Viskontas says. “It allows us to understand each other in ways that no other medium does.”