Getting in synch with the crowd

What do cheering for a team in a loud stadium and chanting in a religious ritual have in common? Both give us chills and that eerie feeling of being connected to something bigger than ourselves.

There we have a social phenomenon that is able to push the right buttons of our nervous system and produce a response that is similar to drugs. Tempting, isn’t it?

I believe every nation state is guilty of exploiting this mechanism to their own benefit.

What do the following videos have in common?

First, here is a demonstration of the haka, a cerimonial dance by the Māori people from New Zealand:

The haka can be so impactful on spectators that it has been adopted by New Zealand national teams and has been performed before their matches over the years.

Here is a recent video of the NZ national rugby team performing it against Tonga’s. Incidentally, Tonga also has their own intimidation ritual, a dance called sipi tau:

Next, here is something more cheerful. While waiting for a Green Day concert to begin, a crowd of 60,000 people in Hyde Park, London, started (spontaneously) to sing Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody:

Finally, take a look at these soccer fans, supporters of Wydad Casablanca in Morocco:

I could go on and on with examples of similar phenomena. They are situations in which a crowd acts in the same rhythm, usually supported by music or chants.

By merely watching the videos above it is likely that many would get goose bumps. Our response would be even more profound if we were present in the actual demonstrations. On top of the physiological arousal, being there would deliver the good, transcendental feeling of belonging to something larger than ourselves.

What researchers say about synchrony and arousal

Azim Shariff, a psychology professor, said in a recent podcast interview:

There is this work on what is called synchrony — which is engaging in actions at the same pace, in the same rhythm, of others. You have this in terms of hymn singing, but you also have this in terms of marching, that is often used in military drills, for the same the reason. When you’re engaging in an action in rhythm with somebody else, that creates the psychological connection that makes people feel fused as a group.

In the same podcast episode, Shubha Pathak, a historian of religions, adds:

Often a text or a chant, a mantra, will start with the syllable om. And I think the reason why that is, not only does it have the significance of standing for a particular god in his totality or her totality, but you have this column of sound that gives you a sense of vastness.

I think it is sort of similar to what happens when you have two singers singing at the exact same frequency. You start to have these beats in the room. With om, it creates something around you that makes you feel like you are part of something.

A basic description of what is happening neurologically comes from a story about musical arousal by David Shariatmadari with the neuroscientist Jessica Grahn:

[According to her, this is] a form of autonomic nervous system arousal, the evolutionarily ancient preparation for fight or flight. As well as piloerection (those hairs standing on end), if I’d been hooked up to medical monitors, they would have detected increased heart rate, perspiration and faster, deeper breathing.

Researchers have shown that activity in the nucleus accumbens, deep inside the brain, increases during chills. “What’s interesting about this is that it’s what we call a reward structure. So it responds to all sorts of biological rewards like food, or sex or drugs. And the chemical that’s released during musical chills, dopamine, is one that is also acted on by things like cocaine or amphetamine or other intensely pleasurable experiences.”

Anyone who’s felt musical chills will instinctively recognise this. They are among the most instantaneously exciting sensations you can experience. They involve the body and the mind together, and often seem deeply significant: giving you access to something bigger than yourself, something ineffable.

A tool that can be exploited

If I were to tell you that there is a social phenomenon that is able to manipulate our nervous system to produce a response that is similar to drugs, would you be interested in making use of it?

You can bet you are not the only one.

For instance, I believe it is no accident that every nation state has an anthem. National anthems seem like the ultimate exploitation of this phenomenon. Think about it, first, they have the anthem repeated to you as frequent as possible. You probably started listening to it in early childhood and have been revisiting it again and again, hundreds of times over your lifetime. As they become completely ingrained into our memories (and thus identity), listening and singing the anthem along with your fellow citizens is guaranteed to be a cathartic experience.

Nice and useful, right?

May 2019