Consider some of the meanings for synchrony. Most modern is to sync the calendar, contacts, etc. among one’s personal devices. One of the oldest is of a moment, an event with no passage of time and the antonym of diachronic. Then I remember old war movies where everyone synchronizes their watches at “3-2-1 check” so that they all start the attack at the same moment. (Let me not forget a great album by the Police, Synchronicity). Today I am most interested in the biological roots of synchrony and how this temporal aspect contributes to our being, as Michael Tomasello calls us, the most cooperative of primates.
One feature of our culture is to synchronize our relations with the world, which most organisms do each in their own way, e.g., diurnal patterns, etc. Humans do it the human way. ‘Happy new year’ is really an arbitrary marker by which we all achieve the same calendar. That action is an old one: consider the astronomical calendars of the ancients. Stonehenge enabled peoples to meet on the longest and shortest days of the ‘year’. Each group had its own calendar that suited its purposes and was accurate according to their astronomical knowledge. The Mayans had an especially accurate calendar. As humans progressed in becoming a global community, especially for trade and travel, the calendar became standardized. The West went from the Gregorian to the Julian, which is what most of the world today uses. I have heard of a Welsh community that within themselves uses the old Gregorian, and of course the Chinese celebrate their new year on February 5, this year being of the pig, of the year 4716; all of their computations here are based on the lunar cycle.
And along with synchronizing our joint actions with the heavens, most spiritual traditions add a few extra markers along the way to coordinate further. My Celtic ancestors used the solstices and equinoxes and points inbetween; their new year day was actually Samhain (now Halloween). The Celtic and Roman churches had a small disagreement over how to date Easter—the Celts wanted stay with a purely astronomical definition while the Pope et. al. wanted Easter to fall on a Sunday. No big deal, you say? Hmmm. Just don’t say that where Columchille, aka holy St. Columba, can hear you; he also fought Rome to retain the Druidic tonsure (front of skull shaved) over the Roman (bald spot on top—think Friar Tuck) as well as defending the rights of bards to sing the old songs. Cultural differences are generally all of a piece, but I digress.
So we synchronize in order to cooperate better, so that trains and planes arrive without crashing into each other, so that we meet at the appointed place and time, etc. This is a cultural bias, not a hard and fast rule. Occasionally I interact with people (or hear about them) who say they will be there in an hour and it is 4hours later or even the next day. Read a book like A Year in Provenceand you wonder if workmen there have calendars or clocks. Generally, though, we synchronize a lot intentionally, and we synchronize sometimes incidentally, e.g., women in the same household tend to menstruate on similar schedules.
I posted last April (“A particularly interesting study”) about research showing that graduate students at the end of their program showed significant synchronicity in brain wave patterns according to how much they had worked together. Further, the closer their friendship, the higher the correlation between brain patterns, enough so that the researchers could predict friendships based upon those correlations. I have to wonder in this regard about our domesticated animals, especially our very good dogs. A brief glance around the web shows several studies documenting how humans and dogs come to follow each other in many aspects. I know from watching the cattle on our farm that they watch me when I emerge from the house and will follow me when I hike down to the creek, etc. Of course they run to the corral whenever hay is brought in or even when a vehicle of similar sort runs close by. No EEG studies on dogs yet that I can find and I doubt (and hope) that anyone would bother with the bovines.
The thought behind this blog came when I read a recent study on PLOS (https://journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.2006328. The article, “Parental neural responsivity to infants’ visual attention: How mature brains influence immature brains during social interaction”, shows again how important parent-child interactions are and how good parents help their infants synchronize their actions and so their brain waves. The researchers recorded EEGs from both parent and child during the child’s solo play and joint play. They found that certain patterns during solo play predicted what the infant would pay attention to and that during joint play the infant EEG was less predictive and seemingly affected by their interaction. The more the parent, as demonstrated by EEG patterns, attended to the infant and its activity, the infant attended longer to the objects and presumably its EEG reflected those changes. There is more to this study to ponder, such as, for example, the adults’ theta wave (marker of attention) grew as the infant engaged in joint attention.
I have posted before about our mirroring system and Brazelton’s research showed how even very young infants would mirror back parents’ simple actions like sticking your tongue out. From this beginning we embark on a journey synchronizing our actions with others. Children (and later as adults) whose attachment is disrupted can experience much difficulty integrating their actions with others. Likewise people whose mirroring is hampered, such as those on the autistic spectrum, who can mirror intentionally but do not do so incidentally in the course of social interaction, find emotional resonance difficult to attain.
Much of what we call culture, whatever that is, involves some aspect of synchronizing. Some of us, raised in military families (or proper English or German households) grow anxious if not on time and irritated that others, e.g., trains, etc., are tardy. Falling into and abiding by certain intellectual habits is key to integrating fully into professions, which is why apprenticeships are so important. Of course, neglecting such conventions may allow new and creative solutions. Picasso trained like many others but then pursued different habits. Einstein was a famously poor student because of his disdain for normal procedures. Guilds and caste systems survive to the degree people follow these stipulations. Women are unlikeable if they are powerfully assertive. Other races may act exactly like white folk but meet different and often negative reactions. Synchronicity is not just a matter of timing; following cultural forms, e.g., traditions, expectations, etc. also contributes to our synchronizing with others. Thus, Pierre Bourdieu apprehended our habitus and the doxa demarcated into the orthodox and heterodox (see posts 10/13/17& 9/6/17).
The parent-child along with the graduate students EEG research is interesting because it shows how subtle and deep is our synchronizing. Back when I posted about AESTHEMOS (see post 10/31/17) I wondered about using this instrument, which assesses a person’s aesthetic response in some detail, to explore the possibility of neural patterns amongst those appreciating art to see if experiencing art (I mean good art now) leads to some entrainment, i.e., synchronicity. Now I also wonder if the patterns of art aficionados would be more similar to each other while the patterns of novices would be more scattered. Actually I have a hard time imagining otherwise. Art, from drumming and music to visual and tactile to architectural to cinematic, would seem to depend upon the degree to which the beholders engage in synchrony.
If you ever go to a concert or art museum or a cathedral service, and they ask you to wear an EEG cap, please do so. Also let me know so I can go there too. Travel on, all together now.