Fire-Walking… Hearts Beat as One

It’s ironic that not even one day after the apprehension of Osama Bin Laden that I came across this article published by Pam Belluck of the NY Times.  Most everyone remembers the feelings they experienced on 9/11: the heartache, the anger, the despair but most importantly the sense of unity and patriotism that radiated throughout the country.  Strangers became less strange and neighbors became far more neighborly.  This blog is not about 9/11 but it is related to the experience of unity that we all felt almost ten years ago.

To understand where I’m coming from we must make a voyage to a small Spanish village, San Pedro Manrique.  It’s been a common ritual for the people of this village to walk on red hot coals every June 23, at midnight, a celebration of the summer solstice. For years scientists have been intrigued by the biological underpinnings of such rituals.  Ivana Konvalinka, a bioengineering doctoral student at Aarhus University in Denmark wanted to measure the physiological effects of fire-walking on some of the participants and spectators at the ritual.  The goal was to shed some light on the biological processes at work under such intense conditions.  There are many ways to quantify the physiological responses in humans but the easiest and least intrusive means is to record heart rate.  Konvalinka and her colleagues monitored 12 fire-walkers, 9 spectators related to fire-walkers, and 17 unrelated spectators (visitors or tourists) with concealed heart rate monitors.  The commonly held belief is that such an elaborate ritual promotes group cohesion but the researchers were interested in capturing the actual response.

What the researchers found was really quite astonishing. The heart rates of those related to, or friends with the actual fire-walker were very similar to the heart rate of the fire-walker.  They saw that the spikes and dips in heart rate between these groups were almost in synchrony. Conversely the heart rates of non-affiliated spectators did not synch up. The relatives and friends’ heart rates matched a fire-walker’s rate not just during the walk but before and after the walk (they even saw similar patterns in the people related to other fire-walkers).

There are already many experiments that show similar, though different results.   Sports fans have been researched and found to have synchronized heart rates following exciting events for their team.  Even people who are rocking in chairs will tend to synch up with one another.  One experiment even found that relatives and friends attending a wedding show spikes in the hormone associated with the feeling of love, oxytocin, suggesting that they were bonding with the couple in some way.  Michael Richardson, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Cincinnati believes that this is evidence in support of the claim that there are fundamental physiological behavioral moments that occur between people all the time and we’re just not aware of it.  Richard Sosis, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Connecticut believes that this study helps debunk the commonly held view that cohesion form such rituals is a result of experiencing very similar physical movements such as dancing or singing in unison.  The results of this study are enlightening and Konvalinka hopes to repeat her findings elsewhere.

It is fascinating to think that we’re able to share such similar physiological, biological and behavioral properties in the face of such intense events.  One can’t help but think back to that very infamous day some ten years ago when citizens of the United States of America had their hearts beat as one.

Written by: Matthew Panechelli

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