Keeping Together in Time

Moving rhythmically, in sync with others, is a peculiar human pleasure.   “Muscular bonding” is the term William McNeill has coined to describe “the euphoric fellow feeling that prolonged and rhythmic muscular movement arouses among participants.”

McNeill, a military historian, became interested in muscular bonding as he reflected on his own Army experiences of prolonged marching in close order drill.  He recalled that “moving briskly and keeping in time was enough to make us feel good about ourselves, satisfied to be moving together, and vaguely pleased with the world at large.”  He concluded that keeping together in time by marching, dancing, singing, or chanting rhythmically provides a basis for group cohesion, one that has been of great evolutionary value — for rigorous selection favors groups that are in synch with one another.

Anthropologist Edward Hall concurs, noting  “it can now be said with assurance that individuals are dominated in their behavior by complex hierarchies of interlocking rhythms.”  Hall undertook a program of interethnic research in northern New Mexico, where three cultures (Native American, Spanish American, and Anglo-American) intermingle.  He filmed various interactions and used frame-by-frame technology to analyze the films.  “Unfolding before my eyes was a perpetual ballet,” he recalls.  “Each culture was choreographed in its own way, with its own beat, tempo, and rhythm.”

Synchrony has also been discovered at the individual level by nonverbal researcher William Condon.  Through painstaking frame-by-frame analysis of filmed conversations, Condon discovered a “oneness and unity between speech and bodily motion in normal behavior, ” a phenomenon he called self synchrony. Moreover, Condon found that when people converse, there is not only self synchrony but also interpersonal synchrony.  Entrainment is the term he coined for the process that occurs when two or more people become engaged in each other’s rhythms, meshing like gears in Swiss watch.

Whether at the macro-level of muscular bonding or the micro-level of subtle entertainment, euphoric group feeling and interpersonal rapport depend upon these subtle rhythms of keeping together in time.