Synchronization — Part 2
Humans have an innate capacity to sense, anticipate, and respond to a repeated pattern of sound by moving their bodies in ways that match the beat. Humans across cultures demonstrate this sensorimotor synchronization (SMS) within months of birth and continue to do so throughout their lifetimes. As a beat begins, at least some part of us starts to move, often without our thought or intention. Such synchronizing—which happens when we dance—triggers our endogenous opioid system (EOS) to release its chemical correlates of joy, resilience, and social bonding.
In most dance techniques and traditions, however, humans not only employ this capacity to synchronize, but they also develop it. When dancing, we get better at sensing, anticipating, and repeating rhythms—especially those associated with our chosen practice—regardless of whether those rhythms emanate from a hand drum or synthesizer, tabla or bass, in counts of two, three, seven, or 16.
What are the implications of getting better at synchronizing?
One answer is obvious. Dancers who practice improve their ability to decipher, learn, and execute increasingly complex patterns of composition and choreography.
However, the benefits of getting better extend beyond performance. (Many dance traditions around the world are not aimed at a performance at all.) Why? Rhythm—and synchronizing in particular—is a medium of our relationships with ourselves, with each other, and with the natural world.
When we get better at synchronizing, we get better at relating.
Synchronizing with ourselves
Humans are made of rhythms. Two interdependent rhythms, in particular, represent primary indicators of human health: the heartbeat and the breath. A human cannot live without both of these “vital signs.” Having a heart or lungs is not enough. We need a contracting and releasing heart; we need inflating and deflating lungs, operating within short, repeated time spans, 24/7. Humans are these rhythms of contracting and releasing, inhaling and exhaling, without which we cannot exist.
Our capacity to synchronize is a built-in catalyst that nourishes both of these vital rhythms. In response to a beat, as our bodies move, our breathing and beating adjust to support the movements we are making. We need oxygen to fuel our sensing and responding minds and muscles.
Moreover, as a beat impels us to move and breathe, we become aware of ways in which we haven’t been breathing to our full capacity. We become aware of how tension, anxiety, and grief lock us down.
As the beat propels us to move vigorously, our breathing deepens. Here the research is overwhelming. Even one session of deep breathing can trigger our parasympathetic nervous system, releasing negative, compounded stress and helping us experience greater calm, presence, and healing.
In short, our own movements encourage and guide us to breathe through stuck places, so we can better feel both our pain and our creative resilience. In this way, our innate capacity to move to a beat is a potent ally in helping us synchronize with our own selves, breathing, beating, and moving as one.
And dancing provides us with a way to practice and get better at breathing, beating, and moving as one.
Synchronizing with others
This capacity to synchronize with ourselves underlies our relationships with other people as well. A key ingredient of a healthy relationship is communication—an ability on both sides to speak and listen, empathize and respond. Researchers have identified a correlation between visceral awareness—that is, a sensory awareness of one’s own bodily state—and empathy (Blakeslee & Blakeslee).
In so far as we are in sync with ourselves, we are more able and willing to feel what we’re feeling and thus better able to ask for what we need. So, too, we have more resources for understanding others in ways that allow them to feel heard, respected, and loved.
Here the positive impact of dancing on social bonding reported by many scholars is not simply a function of EOS-induced oceanic feeling nor of physically moving together in time. The social-bonding effect also occurs because, while dancing, we are actually cultivating communication skills that are essential for moving with others—skills we use in moments when we aren’t dancing.
Synchronizing with the natural world
The burgeoning literature on the health benefits of time spent in the natural world provides evidence for a third realm in which our capacity to synchronize supports our lives—connecting with the natural world. As David Abrams catalogs, our senses of sight, hearing, and touch evolved in relation to the natural world. Our eyes evolved to use pulses and patterns of light, our ears to make sense of rhythm and pitch, and our touch to notice the size and scale of resources. Each one of these senses works by sensing and responding to rhythmic pulses of light, matter, and sound.
As a result, when we walk outdoors, we are not only separating ourselves from the stresses of a human-made world, we are stroking our senses, providing them with the rhythmic stimulation they evolved to recognize as sources of nourishment. Here, our capacity to synchronize deepens our felt connection to the natural world.
Of course, when a given environment is extreme, and its rhythms extend beyond what our senses can sustain, we need to be able to seek shelter and protect ourselves. Being in sync with the natural world equips us to discern beneficial versus hazardous environments.
Through dancing, humans get better at doing what we were born to do—sensing, anticipating, and moving to a beat—thereby supporting us in creating life-enabling relationships with ourselves, each other, and the natural world.
So turn up the music and dance.
Also published at Psychology Today: Three Reasons to Move to the Beat
Abrams, David. 2021. Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology. Old Saybrook, CT: Tantor and Blackstone.
American Psychological Association. 2020, April 1. Nurtured by nature. Monitor on Psychology, 51(3). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature
Blakeslee, Sandra and Matthew Blakeslee. 2007. The Body Has a Mind of its Own. NY: Penguin Press.
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