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Hearts Beat As One

It is common knowledge that we can slow our heart rate by slowing our breathing.  Breathe is arguably the most important tool in the whole recovery toolbox for relieving stress and staying in the here and now.  The folks in Sweden have taken this data a step further, into building community for common action.

Having taken a leave of absence just as DSM-5 was published, I have a backlog of posts on diagnosis to write.  But let's break it up, shall we? This one gets filed under both recovery and political action.

It would take researchers from outside of the United States to think of examining the physiology of a group activity. Swedes, with their solid background in hymn singing, did just that, using group singing as a stand-in for group action.

The list of investigators is impressive of itself, as an example of ccoperation.  Researchers from the Center for Brain Repair and Rehabilitation, the Department of Philosophy, Linguistics and Theory of Science, Department of Clinical Physiology, Department of Cultural Sciences, Department of Anesthesiology and Intensive Care, Mathematical Sciences, a musician, a cantor, all from the University of Gothenburg, Gothenburg Sweden, and a random Australian for good measure put clips connected to a computer on the ears of choir members.  Then they had the subjects 1) hum while breathing as needed, 2) sing a hymn with unguided breathing, and 3) sing a slow mantra, breathing only between phrases.  Meanwhile, they collected data on heart rate, respiration, skin conductance and finger temperature.

The Physiology of Community

Unison singing of regular song structures makes the hearts of singers accelerate and decelerate simultaneously.  In other words, within a couple measures, their hearts beat as one.  The mechanism of entrainment is the breath, regulating heart rate through the vagus nerve.  Structured songs, especially those with short phrases (mantras) enforce a patterned breathing, which entrains the heart rate of each singer and corporately, their hearts together.

Choir singing coordinates the neurophysiological activity for timing, motor production of words and melody, respiration and HRV [Heart Rate Variability].  It has been proposed that joint action leads to joint perspectives (Vickhoff, 2008) and joint intentions (Pacherie, 2011).  In this context it is interesting to note that synchrony rituals benefit cooperation (Wiltermuth and Heath, 2009David-Barrett and Dunbar, 2012).  In other words, singers may change their egocentric perspective of the world to a we-perspective which causes them to perceive the world from the same point of view (of for example religion, politics or football team) and thus defining who we are.

This story was widely reported in the US press.  Here is one example from CNN, emphasizing the sense of bonding and common perspective created by group singing.  NPR went in the direction of common spirituality and cooperative spirit in the classroom.

Singing in the Streets

The researchers themselves took it another step.  When hearts beat as one, calming energy spreads through a group in an unthreatened atmosphere.  At the same time, upbeat, energetic singing is rousing. When the calming effects combine with rousing motivation, you create the conditions for social engagement.

Here is an example of this calming/rousing effect that creates corporate action.  We Shall Overcome has been used across the globe as a call to solidarity and courage in the face of oppression.  They were singing it in Tiananmen Square in 1989.  They are singing it today.

Pulling together the recent threads, it occurs to me that singing could be a tool for stigma-busting.  But I mean stigma as I use it, the internalization of somebody else's prejudice.  Stigma produces isolation.  Whatever we fear from the other guy as the consequence of self-disclosure, the other guy never has to lift a finger.  We retreat on our own, make no demands, not even reasonable requests.  We silence ourselves as effectively as any law that makes protest on government property illegal.

As Loony Luna explained to Harry Potter, That's what the Dark Lord wants.  If we think we are alone, we are less a threat.

We Are Not Afraid Today

So how about we form Loony Choirs?  Calmed by regular breathing, supported by synchronous heart beats, roused by energetic singing, we shall stand by each other and act together.  When we lobby our state legislatures, when we sit-in to prevent the closings of mental health centers, when we picket prisons for their policies of solitary confinement, let's stop combing our hair, popping our Xanax, trying to pass as normal.

Let's sing.

photo of flag of Sweden in public domain


  1. I LOVE everything you say in this post. Have always found corporate (not THAT corporate!) singing to be powerful, transporting and transforming!!


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