When Hearts Beat As One

neuroscientists attend ‘Dreamgirls’ in London

Human society, or at least its American variety, could use more unifying of late. There was a time, and it wasn’t so long ago, when digital-age social media was heralded as this new, powerful unifying and democratizing force. Now that that experiment has been running a few years, it appears that what social media is really good at is isolating us in righteous echo chambers and dividing us into hostile tribes. Instead of unifying, it atomizes and alienates.

There was another time, this one almost three thousand years ago, when an early type of social media arose in Greece – live theatre. The intent of classical theatre was to perform compelling stories in a public forum so as to transmit cultural values, tell truths about the human condition, fortify viewers to endure tragedy, and, yes, unify society.

Storytelling, dance and music likely evolved precisely to strengthen societal bonds. Recent scientific research indicates that the Greeks may have gotten it right from the get-go. (As for today’s high-tech social media, the court is still very much in session.) When the Greeks and their successors such as Mr. Shakespeare wrote words to move men’s hearts, they were targeting the figurative human heart, the font of our emotions. But according to new research by neuroscientists at University College London (UCL), theatre has a bonding power that affects the actual organ pumping in our left chest cavities.

Last year UCL neuroscientists monitored the heart rates and skin response of selected audience members at a live performance in London of the Tony and Olivier award-winning musical Dreamgirls. They found that audience members responded in unison through their heart beats, with their pulses speeding up and slowing down in synchrony. Theatre, one might say, unites us. One of the researchers, Dr. Joseph Devlin, Head of Experimental Psychology at UCL, said, “Usually individuals will each have their own heart rates and rhythms, with little relationship to each other. Experiencing the live theatre performance was extraordinary enough to overcome group differences and produce a common physiological experience. People’s heart beats can become synchronized, which in itself is astounding.”

What happened to audience members’ hearts at Dreamgirls is an example of synchrony – the condition of things happening or moving at the same time. The animal kingdom offers up various examples of synchrony. Murmuration, the coordinated flight of a bird flock, is a visually striking example. Some schools of fish exhibit similar coordinated movement.

Homo sapiens is a social animal. We evolved for group living yet little is known about how our brain supports coordinated group interactions. Recently scientists such as Dr. Devlin are paying attention to this phenomenon at the level of the brain and body. A different group of scientists has found synchrony in students’ brainwaves, according to a paper published in the journal Current Biology. They found the more engaged that students were during class, the more their brainwaves were in sync. This brain-to-brain synchrony also correlated with how much students liked the teacher and each other. Another study explored whether group behavior such as dancing operates at a neurological level to promote cohesion. (Soldiers marching and singing in unison would make an obvious research subject.)

Dr. Devlin hypothesizes that live theatre has an ability to bring people together, break down social barriers and generally deliver social benefits to society. He is eager to conduct more research to test this hypothesis.

P.S. Scientists have been discovering that theatre has multiple social powers. Last month I reported on research that discovered empathy increases when one attends live theatre.

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One Response to “When Hearts Beat As One”

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  1. john vreeke says:

    come see Sarah Ruhl’s Dead Man’s Cell Phone at Center Stage. exactly what Duane is reporting in this article.

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