Monday, July 24, 2017

More synch: Firewalking (performers and spectators), Romantic partners (& empathy for pain)

Pavel Goldstein, Irit Weissman-Fogel, Simone G. Shamay-Tsoory. The role of touch in regulating inter-partner physiological coupling during empathy for pain. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-03627-7
Abstract: The human ability to synchronize with other individuals is critical for the development of social behavior. Recent research has shown that physiological inter-personal synchronization may underlie behavioral synchrony. Nevertheless, the factors that modulate physiological coupling are still largely unknown. Here we suggest that social touch and empathy for pain may enhance interpersonal physiological coupling. Twenty-two romantic couples were assigned the roles of target (pain receiver) and observer (pain observer) under pain/no-pain and touch/no-touch conditions, and their ECG and respiration rates were recorded. The results indicate that the partner touch increased interpersonal respiration coupling under both pain and no-pain conditions and increased heart rate coupling under pain conditions. In addition, physiological coupling was diminished by pain in the absence of the partner’s touch. Critically, we found that high partner’s empathy and high levels of analgesia enhanced coupling during the partner’s touch. Collectively, the evidence indicates that social touch increases interpersonal physiological coupling during pain. Furthermore, the effects of touch on cardio-respiratory inter-partner coupling may contribute to the analgesic effects of touch via the autonomic nervous system.

Ivana Konvalinkaa, Dimitris Xygalatas, Joseph Bulbulia, Uffe Schjødt, Else-Marie Jegindø, Sebastian Wallot, Guy Van Orden, and Andreas Roepstorff. Synchronized arousal between performers and related spectators in a fire-walking ritual. PNAS, May 17, 2011 vol. 108 no. 20 8514-8519, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1016955108
Abstract: Collective rituals are present in all known societies, but their function is a matter of long-standing debates. Field observations suggest that they may enhance social cohesion and that their effects are not limited to those actively performing but affect the audience as well. Here we show physiological effects of synchronized arousal in a Spanish fire-walking ritual, between active participants and related spectators, but not participants and other members of the audience. We assessed arousal by heart rate dynamics and applied nonlinear mathematical analysis to heart rate data obtained from 38 participants. We compared synchronized arousal between fire-walkers and spectators. For this comparison, we used recurrence quantification analysis on individual data and cross-recurrence quantification analysis on pairs of participants' data. These methods identified fine-grained commonalities of arousal during the 30-min ritual between fire-walkers and related spectators but not unrelated spectators. This indicates that the mediating mechanism may be informational, because participants and related observers had very different bodily behavior. This study demonstrates that a collective ritual may evoke synchronized arousal over time between active participants and bystanders. It links field observations to a physiological basis and offers a unique approach for the quantification of social effects on human physiology during real-world interactions.


  1. Hi Wm!

    I’ve been to two fire-walking ceremonies.

    One was in LA, very LA, where I had no prior intent to attend, but it was free and my ride elsewhere wanted to go before dropping me home. The event was led by the somewhat folksy fellow who taught Tony Robbins the technique. It was interesting in that the premise / promise was that those who walked would have (a) overcome their greatest fear (b) demonstrated that they had “mind over matter” and “done the impossible” and (c) could therefore find endless “impossible” possibilities were now open to them.

    I watched five or six people walk before me, experienced no fear, & didn’t believe it was impossible, so I walked, had no sense of mind over matter, and found the whole experience “nothing special”. Afterwards, the walkers were asked what they’d now have the courage to do, and the median answer was “ask my boss for a $25 / month raise.” The whole thing was (fascinatingly, instructively) a damp squib.

    By contrast, I had earlier been to a fire walking with the monks at Mt Takao. I didn’t walk on that occasion, but was immensely impressed by the visual spectacle -- the flames, the monks wearing liturgical robes to match those of Benedictines at an Abbatial High Mass – and by the symbolic gesture in which all spectators and walkers wrote their sins (shames, regrets, faults?) of the past year on small slivers of wood and tossed them into the flames, so that the walkers were literally treading on, trampling on, stomping out those sins (shames, errors).

    Comparative religion footnote:

    Jesus Christ is recorded as teaching a disciple to walk on water, but there's no mention of fire-waking (in the canonical Gospels at least!)

    1. Most interesting, Charles, most interesting. I can't imagine myself fire walking, just like that, but who knows? I wonder if there were different synch patterns in LA and Mt. Takao.