Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Glowing together

You know the feeling when it happens. A kind of "aligned presence". You resonate with others on the same wavelength. You tune into each other's way of being and acting. You often start acting in unison.

Just like a choir singing in perfect harmony, a mother and child delighting in each other's smiles, a basketball team whose every perfect play seems to be controlled and co-ordinated by a magic force.

You see it sometimes when a politician, head of state, religious leader, star of stage and screen, or a power couple enters the room. Everyone turns. They seem to be larger than life, head-and shoulders above the crowd, glowing with a subtle, serene certainty, so comfortable within their own skins, and at ease with us, the crowd. They have a sparkle in their eye, a confident step, they smile easily. Not only do they attract our attention, but they attract us. It's as if every cell in our bodies is tuned to the same frequency.

Couples that operate this way seem larger than life. They seem  to "glow together" as if connected by invisible force fields. Where one amplifies the other. They exude a kind of abundant aura which is contagious to those that come close to them. They serve each other's interests, valuing the other, not only for what they can do alone, but what they are able to achieve together. They talk about the other, as if each new moment of every day is a brand new awakening, surprises to be savored, taste sensations to be enjoyed, worlds to invented and play within.

It's the exact opposite of the sniping and put-downs of couples headed for the divorce court, leaders whose charisma fades when they look out for themselves ahead of their people, and teams that focus on their own personal performance instead of serving the interests of each other. It's the exact opposite of football teams where every player is out for themselves. It's the exact opposite of the teacher who controls her class with threats, sarcasm and put downs.

A candidate for this kind of close connectedness is Broca's area of the brain, sometimes called the empathy centre, where the same mirror neurons fire off when we watch someone perform certain actions, as when we perform the actions ourselves.

"Glowing together" seems to be a feedback effect between the empathy center of our brains. I empathize with you, you with me, me with you. Like being in love....radiating "love beams", for all we are worth.

Interestingly, it is Broca's area where the speech and motor actions are orchestrated, which also makes sense, as speech is just another motor action, but a very complicated one, because the brain has to control how the lips, tongue, jaw, cheeks, larynx and lungs move/work together. What first began as a mother's smile, or words of warning, has developed into a series of automatic responses in which both gesture and speech play a role. They are often co-generated, one representing or emphazing aspects of the other.

The cerebellum may also have a role for it is here where fine motor tuning is managed. It's not uniquely human. Its a very old capability that we share with other species. We know that birds flock and fish shoal by following simple rules, such as maintaining a fixed distance from other birds or fish and making constant adjustments for changes in direction, so their heading is always aligned.

We also know that intra-group resonance is not unusual. Choristers listen carefully to each other so their voices resonate and harmonise with each other. The dance troupe co-ordinates not only by moving their bodies in-time/synchronization with with the music, but also by simultaneously observing and moving in unison with the movements of others. The football team anticipate each other and the ball's movements. They move into positions ahead of time where the maximum number of connections is possible.

So here is an experimental workshop to explore this idea:

1. Fix your gaze on a person somewhere else in the room and give them a really big happy smile. How did this make you feel when someone smiled at you?
2. Arrange for a member of your group to leave the room, and re-enter looking really happy. What were your first thoughts when this happened? How did it make you feel?
3. Arrange for a different member of your group to leave the room and re-enter looking really sad. What were your first thoughts when this happened? How did it make you feel?
4. What could account for the differences in your interaction with the happy and sad people?
5. Choose a song that everyone knows and sing it (and clap it together) together, with great enthusiasm. How did it make you feel when you did this?
6. Give examples from your own experiences of people "mimicking" the actions/gestures of others, recall when this mimicking occurs and what might have led up to it happening.
7. Give examples of any kind of animal acting in unison or resonance with another. e.g. birds flocking, fish shoaling.
8. Give examples of humans acting in unison or resonance with others e.g. singing in a choir.
9. What might acting in unison or resonance have to do with music?