Free Falling Into Sync

Listen to Kate read: Free Falling Into Sync

Where we learn that energetic vibrations
can get us in a groooove.

I had to get out.

Which isn’t my M.O.. I’ll stay home for days at a time, feeling quite content reading & writing during the day and watching mindless tv in the eve. It’s friggin’ ideal.

Today is one of those days where there’s a super-fresh sun-soaked breeze blowing through the open windows and people keep walking by the house being all happy and sounding super relaxed and unrushed, and I just wrote about, oh I dunno, 500 words that aren’t exactly trash but also don’t feel like they’re right for this essay on synchrony so I thought, I gotta get out. And I walked to the market four blocks away to get stuff for dinner.

There was a couple strolling in front of me and I thought I’d keep pace with them but aaahhh they’re too slow. I doubled my pace and as they heard my steps coming up behind them one of them slowed down and got in line behind the other one to allow me room to pass (‘scuse me, thx). Their conversation didn’t seem to pause even though their movement was totally interrupted by me.

On the way back from the market, a person crossed over from the opposite side of the street, walking at a very accelerated pace, keeping that stride as they stepped in front of me and continued in the same direction I was going. After about a half a block, I realized I was trying to move lock-step with them, but I couldn’t quite do it and then they turned the corner and were out of sight and I slowed down.

As I walked up the steps to my house I muttered: Did I actually just try to walk in sync with that person?

And as I walked into the house I also thought – and why couldn’t I?

The word sync is short for synchrony and the more commonly recognized synchronize and synchronicity. Though the base definition of it is “simultaneous occurrence,” that definition is best applied to an event that’s occurred where humans – and their selective behaviors  – are not central to the mix. When we’re talking about a group of folx getting in sync, we’re talking about:

(noun )
The rhythmic coordination of speech and movement that occurs non-consciously both in and between individuals during communication.

APA Dictionary of Psychology

A few months back I wrote about harmony and I called out how it’s not a synonym for sync. The way I’ve kept the difference straight in my mind is that harmony is created deliberately, while sync happens spontaneously.

But now I’m not quite sure that is a complete explanation of their difference.

For the past 20 years, if you’re talking about sync and the mathematics behind it, then you’re bound to reference mathematician Steve Strogatz’s popular and aptly titled book, Sync.  I went to the chapter titled “The Human Side of Sync” to gain some understanding on how this whole sync thing goes down when we’re talking about humans as the entities that are syncing. 

In 1999, some research physicists recorded a number of audiences at concert halls in Romania and Hungary. They were observing the clapping of the audience.

(I realize the following is a big chunk of a book quote, but it’s a goody – and it’d be silly for me to just partially reference it and then attempt to sum up the rest of it in my own words.)

The recordings showed that the audiences clapped tumultuously at first, then spontaneously switched to thunderous, rhythmic applause at a slower tempo, and then relapsed into cacophony, swinging back and forth six or seven times between chaos and sync… Because of cultural expectations, the audience members all know that they want to clap in unison. But some have inherently faster or slower intrinsic clap rates.

To get in sync, everyone slows down to half the rate of individualistic applause, and the dispersion of frequencies tightens up…when the dispersion of frequencies is sufficiently reduced, the system abruptly crosses a phase transition and sync breaks out spontaneously. The twist in all this – the part that no theorist ever imagined – is that the synchrony comes with a psychological price.

Sync: The Emerging Science of Spontaneous Order
by Steven Strogatz
(pg. 272)

The psychological price is that reaction that we all have when we feel we haven’t outwardly expressed an emotion at the same level we are feeling it internally. We’ll then increase that outward expression – we’ll speak louder to the point of yelling, we’ll write more letters and emails, we’ll dance more frenetically – and if we’re applauding then we’ll clap louder which then translates to clapping faster.

That self-modulation is the phase transition, and it has the properties of both sensitivity and influence. Once that transition hits, sync is on its doorstep to potentially appear. That’s totally describing some sort of an exchange of energy going on, where timing is a key factor.

Now I’m wondering if I don’t so much prefer harmony over sync,
it’s just that they exist for two different purposes of collaboration. 

I looked back to my pendulum essay, where I wrote about Dutch mathematician Christian Huygens and his discovery in the mid 1600’s of clocks syncing up.

Huygens, who was sick in bed at the time, noticed that two of his pendulum clocks, which were hanging next to each other on the wall, kept identical time and returned to a synchronous, anti-phase-locked state even if the pendulum of one of them was disturbed. Conversely, when he placed them on opposite sides of the room, they gradually drifted apart.  He concluded that clocks sufficiently close to each other were coupled through small vibrations in the wall.

Small Worlds: The Dynamics of Networks between Order and Randomness
by Duncan J. Watts
(pg. 223)

Oooh, that word – coupled – feels quite appropriate here. When we describe two individuals who have formed a significant (and, interestingly, usually exclusive) bond in their relationship, we say that they are coupled. Now I’ll think on how that can also mean the energy component within that coupling, perhaps of the type that could bring about synchrony on their actions?

I’m thinking at this point you may benefit from an illustration that totally locked in – for me – how to visualize synchrony and its exchange of energy to create coupling. 

Obviously, in Panel A, those two people are swinging in sync; essentially, they’re human pendulums 😉. They can hear each other and are able to communicate, thereby exchanging energy, and if their pacing continues to match they could presumably carry on a whole conversation.

Not so much with Panel B because are they not only not able to clearly hear each other because of being off sync from each other, but they also may have additional interference from the sounds of the people standing behind them; they are not able to hook into one constant – that one other person – in order to focus their auditory exchange.

In the mid 1970’s, about 300 years after Huygens pendulum clock discovery, Japanese physicist Yoshiki Kuramoto composed a mathematical model that explains the behavior of synchronization. His studies, it should be noted, were focused on oscillators – not humans – and his goal was to get to a better understanding of the self-organization component of sync, namely, what the frick is going on – mathematically – for 2 or more of these things to adjust their own speeds in order for all of them to get in sync. 

In the very most simple of all explanations – and I’m talking incredibly generally simplistic  – Kuramoto’s mathematical model distinguished that the ‘leader’ of the movement, likely the one who is moving the fastest – be it oscillations, swinging on a swing, or clapping your hands when applauding, – the leader is the initial one who visually calculates the space in time from theirself to the next closest participant. 

This is the interaction rule in the Kuramoto model, and the rule then continues to propagate throughout the rest of the participants, instant by instant, attempting to average all their speeds. Notably, it’s unclear how long this modulation of speed can be maintained in order to keep that synchrony. This rather symmetrical ordering into synchronization is known as all-to-all connectivity or (surprise!) all-to-all coupling.

Aaaahhhh, I can totally mirror this over to everything from the workplace to (all kinds of) team sports to political campaigns. In the category of getting everyone on the same page (which comes after the establishment of trust when managing up and managing down throughout the entire group), hellz yes we look to the leader to be perpetually aware of where they are in their movement and where the rest of their peeps are, and to modify their positioning accordingly if the groups goal is to be in sync.

At this point, I knew the time had come to find the answer to the most important sync IRL universal question.

Is there something mathematical that can give substantive confirmation to the belief that people with uteruses who live together will sync up their periods?

Can a person’s menstruation cycle (which are absolutely oscillating cycles that repeatedly go from one extreme to another at […usually 🙄…] a pretty consistent rate) exchange some sort of energy with another person’s menstruation cycle, and what is the type of energy that would be emitted from the cycle, considering that this oscillation occurs inside the body? Are pheromones considered to be energy? If so, are we saying the syncing happens solely because of constant close proximity, sorta like a magnetic attraction that bonds the cycles?

I lurve the idea of this, it feels empowering in some way, but mathematically  – it doesn’t really pan out. At least not as an example of sync IRL.  It’s more likely mathematically explained using a probability formula. Oh, well.

I can definitely see how sync IRL holds an important place, whether it is in its traditional form of happening spontaneously, or when it is consciously coordinated in a dance or some other physical display where it’s key that all participants blend together to give the allusion of one unit as opposed to a group of individuals. Even when it comes to human emotions.

Historically, human survival depended on the ability to function within a social context. We have to understand others and find ways of forming a connection. Synchronizing emotions helps facilitate that connection. As a result, humans, like other primates, are natural mimics. Partners in conversation tend to sync rhythms.

Studies of college students engaged in social interaction show that they sometimes synchronize their facial and body movements to those of others within 21 milliseconds. That lightning synchrony is only possible because it comes from subcortical brain structures that are outside our conscious control.

Emotional: How Feelings Shape Our Thinking” by Leonard Mlodinow
(pg. 185)

Energy that holds and requires individuality allows for harmony. Energy that needs to be distributed or exchanged equally across two or more individuals so that it can be one united energy force, well, I’m seeing that that is the good that sync brings to humanity.

Thanks math, you’re the best.

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