Have you ever had the strange sense in the middle of yoga class that the room is literally moving as one? You know, the feeling that the group has become so connected– in breath, in movement, in intention, in flow– that even the physiological pulses of your body and the the body next to you have come into alignment? Many scholars have described this feeling as one of “self-transcendence” in which the sense of separate self dissolves and we experience a profound unity with others and the world. Self-transcendence has long been thought to be a strictly subjective, internal experience, but now scientists are suggesting that there may be a physical basis to that popular saying “two become one”.
In a recent study at Stanford, participants were paired with another student who, unbeknownst to them, was an accomplice working for the researchers. The experimenter asked the pair a series of questions that they provided answers to aloud. Depending on the condition, the accomplice either provided answers that matched with the participant’s own interests or did not. This set-up was designed to provoke feelings of social connectedness with the other student.
Now, here’s where things get interesting. The researchers then asked one partner to run in place vigorously for three minutes, while the other looked on and had their blood pressure and heart rate recorded. Key finding? It seems that the very awareness of their partner there running in place caused the socially connected participants to increase their heart rate and blood pressure. And get this…the participants who did not feel socially connected? No significant changes in vital signs. Pretty interesting. Apparently, the very sense of feeling connected to another can quite literally make our hearts beat together.
The researchers described the research as demonstrating that “psychologically, the self and the other can blur.” Wow… almost sounds like a description of samadhi rather than a scientific finding! Obviously, more research will be necessary to uncover the exact mechanisms behind these results– mirror neurons might be an apt candidate– but it’s great to see scientists exploring the realm where science and spirituality cross over.