(Sunday Thought) The Biology of Belonging

World historian William McNeill argued that humans had evolved for synchronous ritual: dancing, chanting, marching in time. The anthropological data seem to support this. For example, researchers recently found that Sufis engaged in the dhikr, a collective worship sometimes called “the way of the heart,” will synchronize their heartbeats over hours of ritual.

While this effect certainly relies on some physical process like oscillator coupling, it doesn’t have a simple mechanical explanation. When sitting silently together, mimicking each other’s behavior, lovers also tend to synchronize. And yet, non-pair-bonded strangers engaged in the very same activity do not.

(Interestingly, women’s heartbeats tend to attenuate more. In other words, in one experiment at least, women’s bodies settled closer to where their partners started and at a statistically significant rate.)

Scientists also saw this effect at a fire-walking ritual in Spain. Not only did participants’ and spectators’ heart rates approach synchrony, but “the degree of synchronicity was directly related to the level of social proximity. A fire-walker’s heart-rate patterns resembled those of his wife more than those of his friend, and those of his friend more than those of a stranger. In other words, the closer the social ties between two people, the more their heart rhythms were synchronised. This relation was so strong that we were able to predict people’s social distance simply by looking at the similarities between their heart-rate.”

There really is something to belonging. It’s not a joke or a lie. Many people in post-industrial society are missing it, and it’s leading us to ever-greater extremes of thought and behavior.

I’m hardly the first to make that observation. In fact, the consequences of the Age of Individualism are the subject of a new documentary series by Adam Curtis. As with his 2016 film “HyperNormalisation,” which I’ve mentioned before, his new series seeks to answer the question of why, despite near-universal dissatisfaction with the current economic and political system in the West, we seem to be stuck, unable even to contemplate alternatives.

Futurist Doug Rushkoff asked a similar question in 2018 after a group of five wealthy hedge funders paid him half his annual salary to sit and answer questions for an hour. They asked him whether Alaska or New Zealand would be spared environmental collapse, how would they pay their guards after the collapse of a money economy, and how could they be sure such men wouldn’t choose their own leader? Even the exorbitantly wealthy, Rushkoff noted, no longer believe they can influence the future. They are instead focused solely on personal survival:

“Taking their cue from Elon Musk colonizing Mars, Peter Thiel reversing the aging process, or Sam Altman and Ray Kurzweil uploading their minds into supercomputers, [the wealthy] were preparing for a digital future that had a whole lot less to do with making the world a better place than it did with transcending the human condition altogether and insulating themselves from a very real and present danger of climate change, rising sea levels, mass migrations, global pandemics, nativist panic, and resource depletion. For them, the future of technology is really about just one thing: [personal] escape.”

Despite that our species has an evolved mechanism for synchronizing our heartbeats, no one seems much interested. Social media is filled with people calling, daily, for half of their adult peers to be silenced, often based on lies.

I suspect this is the major challenge for our species: reconnecting, even to people we dislike. It is not the most pressing. That always depends on what frame you occupy. Immediately, for example, we need an exit from the pandemic. Over the course of the century, we need to address climate change and extreme inequality.

But that will be harder while we remain disconnected from, and hostile to, each other. Given that the only real threat to our continued existence is us, whether we survive will largely depend on whether and how we fill this gap.