Music automatically moves us. Even if you are sitting absolutely still, your motor cortex is still active when you listen to music.
This special link between movement and sound is thought to have been around since music began. It has been proposed that through its capacity to synchronize movements of individuals, music made it possible for us to cooperate more efficiently and thereby survive as a species. Music can therefore be thought of as an inherently social phenomenon, and as something that exists to move us in synchrony, in order to help us bond.
This aspect of music perhaps explains why one of the most common ways of enjoying music is at a concert setting, or at a dance party where we are also able to move together. But what actually happens when we move together to music? Is the thought of bonding through dance just a theory or is there evidence to support that dancing truly makes us closer to one another?
A recently published study1 revealed the surprising effects of merely moving together in synchrony.
In the study, 94 participants first learned four basic dance moves. Then, they were asked to dance together with three unfamiliar individuals. Each participant had their own headphones through which they heard music, as well as short instructions on which pre-learned dance moves they should execute. This use of individual headphones made it possible to look at the effects of synchronized movement independent of the effect of study participants all being exposed to the same sound stimuli. (As a side note, having people listen to music from headphones but still dance in the same space is called “silent disco”. And it seems to be getting quite popular at the moment!)
Study shows dancing in synchrony increased pain threshold ratings
The silent disco created in this study had three different conditions for dancing together: in the synchrony condition, all participants executed the same dance moves to the same music. In the partial synchrony condition, the participants danced the same movements to the same music, but at different times, meaning that no two individuals were doing the exact same move at any point. In the asynchronous condition, the participants danced completely different moves, meaning that each individual’s dance had a completely unique set of moves. In addition, in the asynchrony condition, the music pieces were not played at the same time for any participant.
Before and after the dancing session, the participants were asked to rate the amount of social closeness they felt towards the other participants they had danced with. In addition, as a more objective measure of bonding, the pain thresholds of the participants were measured before and after the silent disco.
Why did the scientists measure pain thresholds? Interestingly, elevation of the pain threshold may be used as an indicator of social bonding. According to the article, previous research has shown that synchronous activity with others like group exercise or synchronous rowing elevates pain thresholds; implying the group activities actually made it easier to deal with pain. It has been suggested that this happens because such activities activate the endogenous opioid system – triggering release of our body's own painkillers. The release of these endogenous opioids has in turn been associated with feelings of closeness towards others.
According to the results of the study, dancing in synchrony with others increased pain thresholds, and also resulted in significantly higher ratings of closeness, than dancing in partial synchrony or asynchrony. In other words, moving together to the same music in synchrony made the participants feel closer to each other and also increased their tolerance for pain, possibly signaling an increased release of the body’s painkillers in the synchrony condition.
In summary, moving together with others to music can act as a quick icebreaker – making you feel closer to previously unknown people. As an added bonus, as well as a potential mechanism for increasing closeness, synchronous movement may also increase your pain threshold. This finding is an important addition to the body of literature showing that music listening can be used for pain management. Perhaps including a social aspect to enjoying music could increase its analgesic effects?
Written by Ketki Karanam and Marko Ahtisaari
1. Tarr, B., Launay, J., & Dunbar, R. I. (2016). Silent disco: dancing in synchrony leads to elevated pain thresholds and social closeness. Evolution and Human Behavior. DOI: /10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2016.02.004