Let’s dance: synchronised movement helps us tolerate pain and foster friendship



Let’s dance: synchronized movement helps us tolerate pain and foster friendship

Just do it.
Herri Bizia/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Bronwyn Tarr, University of Oxford dance

Dance might not think of yourself as a dancer. Maybe even the idea of dancing makes your palms sweat. However, growing scientific evidence suggests that getting up and grooving with others has a lot of benefits. Our recent study found that synchronizing with others while dancing raised pain tolerance. It also encouraged people to feel closer to others.

This might have positive implications for dance movement therapies, which already show promising results in treating dementia and Parkinson’s. Music-based therapy is also already used for children with autism, and perhaps synchronized and exertive dance therapy could also help them connect with others.

The power of music

Humans are naturally susceptible to music: hearing a good beat makes us want to move. You might find yourself tapping your finger or foot in time to a song on the radio or bobbing your head (if not your whole body) at a concert. This is something that even babies do.

Humans have danced together in groups throughout history. With a rise in dance activities ranging from Zumba to flashmobs, collective dancing—an activity that involves synchronizing with both the musical beat and fellow dancers—shows no signs of letting up.

Flashmob at a Black Eyed Peas concert.

So, why do people dance? There has been much debate about whether there is any evolutionary explanation for our tendency to dance. It most likely features in our selection of romantic partners and how we signal our group membership to rival groups (think of the highly synchronized Hakka). One of the main theories about why we dance is that it offers opportunities to form positive connections with others.

So far, our testing of the “social bonding” hypothesis of dance has focused on one particular aspect: synchronization with other people. It turns out that when you synchronize even a small movement, like tapping 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 when we watch someone else do the same thing at the same time as us, our brain ends up with a [merged sense](http://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/abstract/S1364-6613(03) of us and them. It feels like we “become one”. Anyone who has ever rowed might be familiar with that moment when you hit a state of perfect synchronization with your rowing team. Suddenly, you feel like you are part of something bigger than just yourself and that you belong.

The science of dance and friendship

In other social animals, such as monkeys and apes, activities that encourage social connections, or “friendships,” are underpinned by various hormones. We likely use similar chemical pathways to forge our social relationships.

Unlock those endorphins.
Angelika Hubertova, the Author, provided

Called the brain’s “happy chemicals” because of their feel-good effects, endorphins are released when we exercise. They may also be an important chemical in human and other primate’s bonding processes. The social closeness humans feel when doing synchronized activities may be because they trigger the release of a cocktail of bonding hormones, including endorphins.

Dance can be both exertive and synchronized, so we wanted to see the relative effects of these aspects on bonding and endorphins. As it’s hard to measure endorphin levels directly, we used pain thresholds indirectly. More endorphins mean we tolerate pain better, so measuring relative increases in people’s pain thresholds can indicate whether endorphins are being released (although other chemicals like endocannabinoids are probably also in the mix).

We had 264 young people take part in the study in Brazil. The students experimented in groups of three and did either high or low-exertion dancing that was synchronized or unsynchronised. The high-exertion moves were all standing, full-bodied movements, and those in the low-exertion groups did small hand movements sitting down. Before and after the activity, we measured the teenagers’ feelings of closeness to each other via a questionnaire. We also measured their pain threshold by attaching and inflating a blood pressure cuff on their arm and determining how much pressure they could stand.

Researchers are learning new moves for the experiment.
José Roberto Corrêa, Author provided

Not surprisingly, those who did full-bodied exertive dancing had higher pain thresholds than those 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 exertive. So long as people saw that others were doing the same movement simultaneously, their pain thresholds went up.

Likewise, a synchronized activity encouraged bonding more than unsynchronized dancing, and a more energetic activity had a similar effect—it also made the groups feel closer. So, moving energetically or in synchronization can make you feel closer to others when dancing, leading to higher pain thresholds. But dance, which combined high energy and synchrony, had the greatest effects.

Although there are many examples of highly synchronized and exertive dances worldwide (flashmobs are a good example), dance also involves other features like creative expression, improvisation, ritual, and cultural significance. These elements undoubtedly contribute to our widespread appreciation and aptitude for dance.

But whatever the reason, if dance helps us build social cohesion and trust, then as a collectively advantageous behavior, it is probably one we should all do more of. So the next time you find yourself at an awkward Christmas party or wedding dance floor, wondering whether or not to get up and groove, do it.The Conversation

Bronwyn Tarr, Post-doctoral Research Associate, Department of Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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