Dr Bronwyn Tarr | University of Oxford
Carimbo dancers of Marajó teach Dr Bronwyn Tarr their traditional dance Image credit: Emanoela Neves
Carimbo dancers of Marajó teach Dr Bronwyn Tarr their traditional dance Image credit: Emanoela Neves

Dr Bronwyn Tarr

Our life expectancy is closely linked to our sense of community and the quality of the relationships that make up our communities. The reality is that even in the modern world, we can’t actually get by just on our own – we do rely on friendships to keep us happy and help us live a long and healthy life. In this way, I don’t think we’re so far from our social ancestors as we think. For them, music based activities were probably a potent 'social glue.' And still today, I think people would do well to dance and make music more!

Your research looks at how dance and music brings people together and fosters connection could you expand on that?
Around the world people dance and make music: it looks different and it’s used in various ways in different cultures but it exists everywhere. There’s something quite human about our ability and our tendency to express ourselves through music – like Oliver Sachs famously said: “We humans are a musical species no less than a linguistic one.” A lot of people might not really think of themselves as musical, especially today where a lot of us just plug into personal music devices and leave the creating to professional musicians and dancers. But even the least musical among us are susceptible to music in some way – it can affect us emotionally and physically. When a good tune comes on we can’t help but start tapping our foot in time to the beat, and music can make us feel intensely sad or elated. This appreciation for music, and our tendency to want to share and make music with other people – to hear music, to feel moved by it – this is something we’ve inherited from our musical ancestors.

The question then is: ‘Why?’ – where does this susceptibility come from? And why has it continued for so long as such an important part of human culture and ritual, probably for hundreds of thousands of years? The oldest instrument that we know of is about 40,000 years old – but probably we’ve been making music and dancing for much longer, and our first instruments would have been our voice and our body. Some people have said: ‘That’s all very well, but it has no evolutionary function.’ That may well be true but when we invest so much time and energy doing something like making music, it is an interesting empirical question as to whether there might be adaptive advantages to doing so.

One hypothesis is that it provides an opportunity for people to come together, making them move – dance – and in doing so we experience internal hormonal cascades which are made up of ‘feel good’ chemicals. These bursts of chemicals are part of our brain’s pain and pleasure and reward circuitry, and when they are triggered they provide an experience of elation and positive reward. When we get this kick in the presence of others, the result is that of collective joy – positive, shared experiences through which we establish and maintain important social connections with others. Now we feel like we belong to a unified, cohesive whole.

Being part of a cohesive social group would have been really important for our ancestors – collaborating with others to find shelter, hunt, rear young would have increased our chances of survival. Music and dance are by no means the only ways we can stimulate these positive social ‘highs’. But they’re really good ways of doing it because it's an experience that we can share with lots of people at once. In order to understand why that would have given us such a great advantage we need to look at our species in the context of primates.

Humans are part of the Primate order, which includes a great range of different species which are typically social dwelling. Across these species, social groups consist of different categories of relationships between individuals: there are relatives (those who you are genetically related to) and romantic partners or mates (a ‘pair-bond’). Then there’s third type of relationship – a social bond – in humans we call it ‘friendships’. Much like pair-bonds or even the attachment between mothers and infants, these social bonds are strong and involve a lot of mutual time investment, shared care and energy. In chimpanzee social groups for example, animals which are bonded in this non-reproductive, non-kin way will ‘get each other's backs’ if there is a squabble in the group and they will share food and sleeping space with one another. These social bonds are critical to the survival of primate individuals in the natural environment – conflict is inevitable so you need to have someone you can rely on to help you defend your food and space.

But we humans live in much larger social groups compared to our primate cousins. And this might have something to do with the size of our brains, or specifically our very large neocortexes. The neocortex is generally considered the seat of consciousness and reasoning, but it also plays a big role in social behaviours. In looking across mammal and specifically primate species, Professor Robin Dunbar noticed that there is a positive linear relationship between the size of the neocortex relative to the rest of the brain, and the typical size of the species’ social groups. The bigger the neocortex compared to the rest of brain size, the larger the social group. If we take the known human neocortex size, and plug it into this equation, we arrive at our natural group size of 150 – the cognitive limit to the number of friends we can keep track of. Since dubbed ‘Dunbar’s number’, this is three times larger than our primate cousins, chimpanzees.

Other primates like chimpanzees rely on activities like grooming to establish social bonds and maintain cohesive social groups. Grooming is typically a mutual, one-on-one activity, but because of this it takes a huge amount of time to keep up with all your ‘friends’. If we humans have 150 as our social group size it’s going to take an estimated 40% of our waking hours to groom all 150 of those people. Which, while it sounds very pleasant, is clearly inefficient – we don’t have time to nurture that many relationships one-on-one. So what we’re looking for are activities that operate on a one-on-many basis. Dunbar has called this ‘grooming at a distance’ – mechanisms that help you get to the same end point of closeness, trust and connectedness but don’t require a one-on-one investment.

I think that music is a great hack for this. Music gives you a rhythmic scaffolding that a lot of people can attend to simultaneously. Music allows us to synchronise our movements in time, coordinate and dance together. You can see flashmobs of hundreds of people all joining into one cohesive unit. What we think is happening here is that those same chemical networks used by primates to establish their bonding are being activated for us too – networks that involve the pleasure–pain circuitry and allow us to enjoy a positive, natural high in the presence of other people, thereby reinforcing feelings of belonging with that group.


You drew on a lot of different disciplines: sociology, anthropology, evolutionary biology and neuroscience. What disciplines most interest you and how do you think about the interdisciplinarity of your work?
I’m actually an undercover zoologist (maybe not that undercover!). Before I came to Oxford I studied animal behaviour and I was interested in the evolution of cooperative behaviours: what makes individuals come together and coordinate.

So I come at my DPhil research from an interest in sociality in general: what is behind the social connection that can form between individuals, why is it there and how is it maintained? Dance and music making are, from my personal experience, an incredible way of feeling a ‘one-ness’ with others. And I think this is unique because it doesn’t need to involve language – we can really use this shared, musical response to connect with others from all sorts of different cultures, without having to talk. 

My personal experience has made me feel like there is something exceptional here, and there is something in that feeling of connectedness which I’m really curious about. I now work as a Psychologist/Anthropologist, looking at human social behaviour. Psychology offers different techniques to help get at the essence of that feeling of connectedness – techniques which range from asking people to rate how they feel on self-report measures and indices to getting them to play games which involve collaboration and coordination. These methods help us define and empirically test our experiences of collective joy. But ultimately I think it still remains a bit of an elusive mystery in social psychology research – pinning down what we really mean by that sense of ‘one-ness’ – that fused unity – is not by any means established in the literature. It’s still up for interpretation – which makes the research quite exciting.


Do you think that the things that in the past were much more important to our evolutionary survival are things that now make us feel more comfortable – for example having friends and, as a mechanism for that, dance?
In the past, when we were living in environments where finding food or shelter or defending areas would have been vastly more difficult on our own than in a group, any activity that helped form a sense of collective unity and gave us opportunities to hone collaborative skills would have been advantageous. Today we outsource a lot of our social cognition to technology, we no longer have to rely just on our neocortex to remember the 150 people who are important to us and why they are important to us and when their birthdays are and so on. We can get our daily meals from Sainsbury’s and arguably needn’t rely on strong social connections to get by day by day. So this might contribute to the general belief that we’re a little bit beyond that heavy reliance on social bonds.

But I don’t think that we are. A really interesting study a few years ago did a meta-analysis contrasting the effects of social relationships – your number of friends and the quality of your relationships – and the influence these factors have on your health in comparison to smoking, to obesity, to how much exercise you do. It’s a given that smoking kills. But it turns out that social isolation does too. Your life expectancy is closely linked to the sense of community that you have and the quality of the relationships in that community. The point is that, even today, we can’t actually get by just on our own – we do rely on other people to keep us happy and help us live a long and healthy life.

Whilst the evolutionary pressures are by no means the same as they would have been when we were hunter gatherers in an arid sub-Saharan desert or impenetrable forest, we are still a social species. And we are also still a musical one. We still have this inherited need to belong and an immense aptitude and appreciation for music and for dance. I don’t think we’re as far from our ancestors as we think. I think people would do well to dance and make music more!


Did working with Robin Dunbar influence your work and help you apply your zoological background to social psychology?
Robin has an incredibly diverse and inspiring background. He has worked on all sorts of projects on non-human social bonding, and he’s been instrumental in bringing together evidence for this theory of the social brain, which applies not just to humans but across primate species and mammals in general. It was completely serendipitous that we met and that this project was born in the way that it now exists. Robin had for a while been developing a theory that music-making and dance might, as he put it, have been a ‘pre-linguistic way of establishing and maintaining social bonds, social contracts and a sense of positive affirmation’. We met to discuss primatology, and it just happened that through the conversation that it came out that I was a dancer. And when he heard that, he said: ‘I have a project for you.’

He gave me the question: ‘Does dance bond us, and if so, how?’. That was the beginning of my DPhil. Of course it’s such a big question and you're not answering the evolutionary side of it directly per se, but the backdrop of all of this is the idea that dance and music-making would have played some advantageous role in our evolutionary history. He also works on laughter and religion and literature and language, and the thread that ties it all together is this idea that humans are a very social species that would have relied on close-knit, well-coordinated social groups to survive. Music-making and dance are just one way we’ve managed to establish and maintain those social groups, and form one part of the bigger puzzle he’s working on.


What practical insights about happiness have arisen from your research?
What makes us happy? From a biological perspective, neurochemicals give us the sensation of joy, they trigger surges of positive emotion and waves of euphoria. Our pleasure circuitry in our brain is also part of the pain circuitry and linked to the networks that give us a sense of reward. When we find something pleasurable – whether it’s a mouth-watering piece of cheesecake or an amazing piece of music – it’s not just giving us a sense of enjoyment, it’s also triggering related cascades of chemicals that make us want to have the experience again.

Just like taking a drug can give you a high, doing certain things can give you natural, internal highs. The reason why the drug works is because it's taking advantage of the internal chemistry that we already have which help us cope with pain or give us a sense of reward and joy. Going for a run activates this pain-pleasure circuitry and stimulates the release of endocannabinoids (which are your natural cannabinoids), and the release of endorphins (which are your natural opiates) and as a result you get a ‘high’ and elevated pain thresholds. That high is addictive; a lot of people (I’m not among them!) love running so much that they may claim to be addicted to it. But really what they are getting addicted to is the cocktail of positive feel good chemicals that running triggers.

Listening to music can trigger that system as well. Certain songs will send shivers down your spine, raise the hairs on your arms and give you a real emotional response. In fact, listening to music can activate the release of endorphins, making us feel good and better able to cope with pain. Of course endorphins are also activated when we exert ourselves, so allowing yourself to just get up and dance when your favourite song starts playing is a sure way to trigger those happy chemicals! In some of our recent research, we found that dancing with high energy and in synchrony with others (so doing the same thing at the same time) has great effects. Compared to non-synchronous and low-energy dancing, people felt closer to one another and had higher pain thresholds (an indirect measure of endorphin release) after dancing energetically and in synchrony. So activities that involve lots of physical exertion and interpersonal coordination (specifically synchrony) are hitting the spot in more than one way, triggering our brains to release this deluge of happy chemicals. So join a flash mob, take a zumba class! But, don’t worry – if you are not physically able to dance all out, even just synchronising small hand gestures still provides a dose of this music-triggered happiness.

As I mentioned before, the social connections we nurture during a music jam session, dance class or when we go to a music concert are important for our general well-being and happiness because they give us a sense of belonging. A really interesting area of research shows that there is actually an overlap between how your body deals with physical pain and social pain. So, for example, when out on a gruelling run, our body has to deal with all kinds of physical stress, which it copes with via those feel-good chemicals which help mitigate the painful physical effects of that activity. Similarly, if you are rejected or ostracised in some way, if you feel discriminated against, if you’re excluded from a group, it hurts. It hurts because it’s actually going through a similar neural circuitry as it would if someone was actually physically injuring us. An activity which makes you feel included in a bigger, stronger unit of coordinating individuals is reinforced by the feel-good chemicals triggered by that social activity. The neurological system is there to reward when something is going to be positive and to make you stay away from situations that aren’t. So in summary, from my research on dance and music, I would say that in the quest for happiness, joining with others in positive experiences of collective joy and shared coordination is a sure way get those feel-good juices flowing.   


What’s been your own relationship with dance?
I started dancing ballet when I was 12. Ballet is very structured, it’s a genre of perfection which demands total mastery of every corner of your body and psyche. When I was 18 I went to America and I danced at Interlochen Academy for some time in a cohort of about 25 other dancers. On arriving, we were put in a room and and told to improvise to music provided by a live, improvising musician. No talking was allowed. We were told to choose a set of movements that was ‘ours’, an individual signature move – and to focus on doing that. As the improvisation developed, we were told we could start integrating other people’s signatures into our sequence, but we didn’t have to. By the end of the hour, without any words being said between us, we had what looked like a choreographed piece of movement and music. What had happened, I think, is similar to what people describe happening in team rowing – where you suddenly feel a ‘click’, and a collection of individuals suddenly become a single unit, all on the same wavelength. That was one of the most fundamental experiences that I had dancing, and it featured in my application for this research project in Oxford – as a scientist I was interested to interrogate the nature of that feeling I’d experienced.


What would you like to do next?
I would like to explore some of the other explanations for why we make music and why we dance and tie it together in a study of music and dance around the world. I’m currently pitching for a documentary series, which I think is a very exciting way to celebrate the colourful diversity of human music-making and dance.