FellowDr. Jasminka Majdandzic
Project NameHow synchrony shapes human social bonding: mechanisms and neural pathways
Host organisationInstitute of Normal and Pathological Physiology
Duration of the project01.05.2015 - 30.04.2018

Abstract
Human societies are characterized by flexibly changing social groups with remarkably strong bonds. Forming and maintaining such bonds is a deeply-rooted ability that is of vital importance for both individual mental health and society as a whole. A striking, universal characteristic of bonded groups is their widespread tendency to synchronize their movements rhythmically in time, as in community dancing or military drill. Prolonged episodes of such behavioral synchronization have profound effects: they boost cooperation and group solidarity and evoke feelings of pleasure, analgesia and deindividuation in the individual members. However, field studies and experimental research have thus far failed to provide clear insights into the neural and psychological mechanisms of the link between synchrony and bonding, and seem to disregard physiological and neural levels of explanation. Yet, adopting a biological perspective is crucial for a full understanding of the ultimate and proximate mechanisms by which social motivations are modified by behavioral synchrony. The proposed project aims to fill this gap. Using a multi-level social neuroscience approach I will assess how social bonding between individuals is modulated by synchronous motor behavior, and which neural pathways enable these processes. To this end, I will develop novel experimental paradigms and behavioral measures to test specific hypotheses, with high experimental control and ecological validity. Crucially, I will use these paradigms and measures to identify the neuroanatomical and neurochemical pathways by which synchrony affects social bonding. The project thus builds upon a coherent series of behavioral, functional neuroimaging and psychopharmacological experiments. Insights from the project will be of high societal and clinical relevance, critically advancing our understanding of the complex processes that act on our biological urge to belong, and the healthy or deficient social behaviors arising from it.

Project Summary with Interim Results

Human societies are characterized by flexibly changing social groups with remarkably strong bonds.  Forming  and  maintaining  such  bonds  is  a  deeply-rooted  ability  that  is  of  vital importance for both individual mental health and society as a whole. A striking, universal characteristic   of   bonded   groups   is   thei widespread   tendenc to   synchronize   their movements  rhythmically  in  time,  as  in  community  dancing  or  military  drill.  Prolonged episodes of such behavioral synchronization have profound effects: they boost cooperation and group solidarity and evoke feelings of pleasure, analgesia and deindividuation in the individual members. However, field studies and experimental research have thus far failed to provide clear insights into the neural and psychological mechanisms of the link between synchrony and bonding, and seem to disregard neurobiological levels of explanation. Yet, adopting  a  biological  perspective  is  crucial  for  a  full  understanding of  the  ultimate and proximate mechanisms by which social motivations are modified by behavioral synchrony.

 

The present project aims to fill this gap. Using a multi-level social neuroscience approach we aim to assess how social bonding between individuals is modulated by synchronous motor behavior, and which neurobiological pathways enable these processes.

 

To this end, in the first project year we have focused on developing and validating novel experimental paradigms and behavioral measures to test specific hypotheses, with high experimental control and ecological validity.

 

Specifically, we have developed a new paradigm to induce physically exertive movement synchrony in a group setting in the laboratory. This set-up enables us to assess effects of synchron over  and  above  effects  of  mere  physica exertion   on several   dependent measures.  We also developed  and tested a new method to assess changes  in individual pain threshold caused by the synchrony induction. In addition, we have developed a battery of questionnaires to measure effects on subjective reports of task enjoyment, group bonding, positive affect and fatigue. A set-up consisting of the synchrony induction paradigm and dependent measures is currently being tested in a group of 72 participants (24 participants per group). Data collection is half-way and is expected to be completed soon. In parallel, we have designed a new paradigm to assess negative social consequences  of group bonding processes evoked by synchronous group movements – a research direction which has thus far received little attention.  This paradigm  will be tested in first half of the second project year.

 

In addition  to the efforts  to develop  and test novel  paradigms,  the first project  year has resulted in two manuscripts reporting results of experiments on closely-related topics, which were  carried  out  prior  to  the  onset  of  the  current  project. One  of these  manuscripts  is currently in revision; the other has been submitted for publication. One publication concerns the behavioral and electrophysiological  effects of being imitated on social bonding. In this work we show that being imitated in a bodily congruent way selectively increases affiliation, social  influence,  prosocial  behavior  towards  the imitator,  as well as electrophysiological indices of empathic arousal. Imitative movements  that were only temporally  congruent did

not induce such effects, suggesting that the effects of movement similarity on social bonding are  rooted   in  embodied   motor   simulations.   The  second   publication   addressed   how representing other’s bodily, cognitive and affective internal states drives enhancements in empathy and prosocial behaviour towards them. The findings of this functional magnetic resonance  imaging  (fMRI)  study  suggest  that  actively  overcoming  the  own  perspective, rather than projecting oneself in others’ shoes, might be more crucial to prosocial behaviours than previously thought.

 

Crucially, once thoroughly validated in a behavioural setting, the paradigms and measures which  are  currently  being  developed  and  tested  will  be  combined  with psychopharmacological  manipulations to identify the neurobiological pathways by which synchrony affects social bonding. Ultimately, the expected insights resulting from the project will be of high societal and clinical relevance, critically advancing our understanding of the complex processes  that act on our biological  urge to belong, and the healthy or deficient social behaviours arising from it.