We tap our fingers and toes in time to a good beat; we bob our heads and bodies at concerts, we air guitar our way to the bar, and our moods genuinely increase in the presence of a good song. Humans are naturally susceptible to music, but why?
A recent study found that synchronizing with others while dancing raises pain tolerance and encourages people to feel closer to others. This explains the social bonding and level of comfort that takes place on dance floors, at concerts, and in music festivals. Collective dancing is defined as “an activity which involves synchronizing with both the musical beat and fellow dancers,” and it has been part of the human culture throughout history – from tribal practices to cultural traditions to dance classes like Zumba. There are several possible evolutionary reasons as to why this practice has lasted throughout different cultural generations, but the main theory is that dancing offers opportunities to form positive connections with others.
There is no denying that positive connections are formed as a result of dancing with others. It is a free-flowing activity, true to our intuitive nature, and a chance to connect with people.
The researchers’ testing of the “social bonding” hypothesis found that “when you synchronize even a small movement, like the tapping of your finger in time with someone else, you feel closer and more trusting of that person than if you had tapped out of time.” This is because our brain registers a “merged sense” when we watch someone else do the same thing. The synchronized movements ultimately make the individual feel like they are part of a collective, and that can be extremely reassuring.
In addition to the undeniable power of music and connectedness, there is the scientific reasoning behind dance and friendship. As we know, endorphins famously produce feelings of euphoria are released when we exercise. Based off our knowledge on primate social connections, we know similar chemicals are released in the stimulating environments of social relationships. It is therefore hypothesized that when humans (the highest level primates) engage in synchronized activities, it may trigger the release of a delicious cocktail full of bonding hormones, including endorphins – which would explain the resulting feelings of ecstasy from dancing with friends.
With dance being both exertive and synchronized, the researchers in this study tested the relative effects of both these aspects on bonding and endorphins. With increase in endorphins, pain tolerance concurrently increases; this relationship became their indirect measure. Researchers found that “those who did full-bodied executive dancing had higher pain thresholds compared to those who were seated in the low-exertion groups. But curiously we also found that synchronization led to higher pain thresholds, even if the synchronized movements were not executive. So long as people saw that others were doing the same movement at the same time, their pain thresholds went up.”
Their findings concluded that synchronized activity encourages bonding more than unsynchronized dancing, and more energetic activity has a similar effect in making groups of people ultimately feel closer to one another. This explains the feeling we have when walking away from a large music event, after we’ve collectively swayed to the beats of the same drum. Their conclusions also explain why we don’t feel as much pain when neighboring dancers might accidentally bump into us, or step on our feet. Our tolerance for pain increases with the happy chemicals in our brains. Perhaps the greatest effects of dancing come with the combination of high energy and synchrony.
Therefore, while dancing helps us build social cohesion and trust, it also involves creative expression, improvisation, and cultural significance. This is most likely why the ritualistic practice has lasted so long. As a society, we should probably engage in more of these types of behavior, especially if it involves live music. So, what’s your next concert or festival?
[Photo by Jeremy Scott]