Monday BS #13: 13.12.21
On rituals and synchrony
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Murder on the dancefloor
I bet that all of us, at one time or another, have suffered in the rigid clench of discomfort and embarrassment on the dancefloor, counting down the seconds till the song ends, hoping at all costs that this chorus is the last one, desperate to release one's spin partner from the torture and dizziness of your missteps.
At a wedding party (remember?), it's hardly possible to turn down an invitation to dance; reluctance seems to spur the opposite number further in their overture! The deep wired desire to twist and shout 'No' is social anathema. There follows four minutes of existential, jiggling hell, the pretence of pleasure hiding self-loathing, the miasma of sweat blinding one from one's own leggy rigor mortis below. Finally shuffling off the dance floor in a state of relief and mild embarrassment, Tantalus is soothed stage left by a warm, alcoholic toxin to wash away the blues.
So for us boogie bears, talk of eliminating all post dinner gyrating due to COVID has been a secret delight, a perfect Bunburying for our times. But it's no surprise that being a waltz whizz has some procreative evolutionary advantages. At one level I suppose, taking control, leading a partner in dance can be sexy, spellbinding and mildly hypnotic; but more profoundly, research shows, it is the synchrony of a harmonious, coordinated dance which creates a vigorous bond between the couple. Just as the lack of synchrony in a disjointed shuffle feels awkward, muddled and detached.
Just as we remember the horror shows, I hope we can all reminisce on at least One-Step which brought a sense of cohesion on the tiles, dare one say of collective achievement, a bodily alignment reflected in mind, a rush of happy adrenaline followed by a cool self-possession.
There is some fascinating behavioural science in the notion of synchrony, and it is a subject I explore in great depth talking A Load of BS with social scientist Dimitris Xygalatas, whose area of study is rituals, their meaning and cultural importance. Keep your gaze fixed and back straight for that one.
If the dancefloor is just one slippery petri dish for arousal, then it's to sporting, gladiatorial arenas we turn, and particularly football, to witness long, sustained patterns of shared arousal; in football's unique case uninterrupted over 45 minutes. Dimitris has studied how arousal is shared between fans by measuring their heart rates. As a game starts, heart rates begin to synchronise. But then as soon as there's an interruption, the synchrony goes away, and then has to start from scratch again. This disjointed pattern is typical of say basketball with its endless interruptions for cheerleaders and tactical time-outs.
Football is unique in its ability to build levels of shared arousal that are actually very similar to some religious rituals or initiation ceremonies (think American fraternities). And by virtue of doing this, it creates a sense of bonding with fellow group members, referred to by some psychologists as identity fusion. Dimitris's research shows that the higher the synchrony in people's heart rates in a sports game, the more transformative the experience is for them, and the higher the bonding that they feel with other fans.
We are the one and only
Any of us who's attended a high stakes sports game in which we're personally invested will know the goose bumps from large numbers of a single tribe singing, chanting and moving in synchrony. It's a visceral experience. Your sense of self and the group become fused as one. Political rallies and marches carry the same characteristics, sometimes with malevolent intention. As Dimitris says in our conversation: "Take a Nazi rally, where you have 10s of 1000s of individuals engaging in actions that require extraordinary synchrony. And you can't help feeling part of this crowd, when you already buy into the ideological framework that is provided, moving in synchrony, chanting in synchrony with this group under enormous symbolic markers, like big flags and colours, and everything else that signifies that you are all the same. This is the bread and butter of any fascist regime."
Such heightened states of arousal, and both the pro and antisocial behaviours that collective rituals engender, lead me to a neat preview of another upcoming conversation with scholar, polymath and Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia, Dr. Edward Slingerland, who, despite being an expert on early Chinese thought, comparative religion and cognitive science of religion, big data approaches to cultural analysis, cognitive linguistics, digital humanities and humanities-science integration (and breathe), has published 'Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization'. While fully transparent of the costs and dangers of alcohol, Ted argues that alcohol, and indeed other drugs, have played a crucial role in helping humans to be more creative, trusting and prosocial, thereby easing the transition from small-scale to large-scale societies.
So if in any doubt at your upcoming Omicron cheese and wine business meeting (old English: Christmas party), neck another bourbon pronto before being dragged onto the Highway to Hell.
Have a great week! 😃