An odd kind of sympathy.


There’s a little firefly that lives in Asian countries that begins to flash as dusk falls. If you sit and watch the fireflies in a single tree, at first they’re all flashing at slightly different times and at different rates. As the light fails, the firefly flashes start to fall into a pattern and by the time it’s dark, they’re flashing in synchrony with each other.

I was thinking about this during the week because when I was walking to work, someone crossed the street, darted between parked cars and emerged on the pavement very near me. Suddenly we both realised that we were walking at the same speed and in step with each other. I think we both altered our speed at the same time and yes, we were still in step! This synchronised movement seemed to be pulling us in to an uncomfortable sort of social intimacy and we both made a conscious choice to break it.

There’s some really interesting research showing that when we watch people who move in synchrony, we think of them as a unit. This is true even if they’re doing it because they’ve been told to, for the purposes of an experiment. This is one way our brain groups people – and this is where I learned a new word: entitativity. When we see people and animals moving together like this, we think of them as an entity. I still can’t quite manage to pronounce entitativity, but in my head it makes perfect sense.

We have exploited this in many ways throughout human history. It is quite clear that an army marching in step appears more unified and so more difficult to break apart than the Braveheart style band, ferocious but disorganised. When we meet someone we like, our movements start to match theirs after a short while together. Individual dancers will often fall into step with each other.

This isn’t just restricted to animals. Back in 1665, a clever man called Christiaan Huygens observed that two pendulums on his wall would gradually change their movement until they matched each other. He called this phenomenon “an odd kind of sympathy”.

What’s interesting is that while there is a tendency for us to match the movements, tones, speed of speech and even breathing patterns of others, we are consciously aware that doing so makes us appear to be a unit. So we can choose to break this coupling, in order to demonstrate that we’re individuals, or that we’re not part of that particular group.

IF you watch groups of horses, you’ll quickly start to see synchronies appear. Some horses stand together, move together, even chew together! In the field, my horse and his pair bond are an example of this. When one steps, the other is already stepping with the same foot, when one lifts their head, so does the other. When they take a break from grazing together, they stand together resting the same hoof.

The research on synchrony among humans shows that if we’re asked to synchronise our movements with someone we don’t know, afterwards we’re more likely to cooperate with them than we would be if we’d just worked together without synchronous movement. In fact, we’re also more likely to feel generous and helpful towards them, to feel sympathetic to them. So when we perceive people moving together as a group or a unit, we’re not simply basing it on a visual perception but on an implicit understanding of how this matching can change our behaviour.

When we’re riding out in a group, some horses want to go fast, some want to go slow and some are very happy to walk along together. However, this can often be different to the way they might be when they’re in their group in their field. It makes me wonder about the difference between when they’re in the field and when they’re out. One of the main differences is us, their riders. It occurs to me that our horses may be choosing not to synchronise because they don’t see us as a unit. Alternatively, they may be trying to synchronise, but being blocked by our movements as riders.

As riders, we’re encouraged to learn to move with our horses. Lessons can involve us sitting on the horse with our eyes closed, feeling the horse’s movements, their steps, their breathing. Once we learn to do this, we can influence the speed of the horse’s movements by thinking about speeding up or slowing down our own. Learning this is challenging in itself, and with it comes the knowledge that if things aren’t going as we want, it may be because we’re not as synchronised as we think!

This leads me on to something that intrigues psychologists and philosophers: joint or shared attention. Very young babies learn to attract the attention of adults to something that they’re interested in. It’s a really important part of developing into a social human. By a year old, they can show us something by either looking at it intently or by pointing to it. This is more complex than it seems, because in order to do this successfully, you have to understand that when another person looks at something, they see it just as you do. You also have to understand that when they look at it as a result of your pointing, they both see it and understand that you know they’ve seen it. It’s the point in the development of human babies when they start to be able to open their mind to think about what someone else is thinking. Psychologists call attention a “spotlight”: we shine it on the things we’re interested in. Things we’re not interested in around and about get a bit of light too, but the main thing lit up is what we’re focussing on.

When we work with our horses, we’re really pleased when their attention is on us. We’re delighted with the signs that our horse is attending to us and not everything else around. Some training systems insist that our horse should pay exclusive attention to us and that if their attention wanders, it should immediately be bumped back to us. What a great ego boost! Equally, we think it’s a mark of good horsemanship that we pay close attention to our horse, we carefully watch their ears, their eyes, their footfalls. In these training situations, we shine the spotlight of attention so brightly that the object of it is likely to be dazzled.

Joint or shared attention is different from this. We each shine our attention on something else. The object of our joint attention is lit up, but we don’t waste time watching and monitoring each other, because we have opened our minds to each other and for now, for this task, they’re working as one. These moments of shared attention are times when we can unconsciously start to synchronise our movements and actions. We don’t do it by watching each other or by trying to match each other. Instead, through the awareness of another mind with the same focus as our own and like the fireflies, we start to move in harmony. We share a part of ourselves and in sharing, we align.

When we ride our horses, we try to make sure we’re as tuned to them as possible. Just like the human choosing not to synchronise with someone they don’t know, our horses can choose to focus on us, obey us, and yet not synchronise with us. They can offer us their undivided attention, but without truly aligning with us. A perfect picture can be off by a fraction of a beat: a tail swish, a pinned ear, an open mouth, a rolled eye, a microscopic loss of rhythm. When we see true harmony between a horse and rider, we recognise it not because the horse is obedient and compliant, but because horse and rider seem to be able to open their minds to each other, to slip into synchrony of movement, breath and thought. A few wonderful horses and riders seem able to do this and I never tire of watching it.

I’d love to hear of situations where people have felt or seen this. As a rider, I’ve probably experienced it for a few seconds! I’m an average amateur rider who tries (probably a bit too hard) to “sense” my horse’s moods and movements. I’ve experienced it with my horse in his field, moments when I knew we were moving and thinking together. I know it could be argued there can’t be true shared attention between two species with different heart rates, different breathing rates and different brains. Equally, as Huygens began to recognise, the world is set up in such a way that many apparently unrelated things fall into synch with each other. My horse is quite as capable as a human infant of drawing my attention to something that interests him. If he can manipulate my attention, he’s taken that sophisticated “I know that she knows that I know” step. He has joined our minds together to look, as one, at something. This powerful process is underneath our conscious decision to synchronise – or not – with someone else, to admit them to our “group”.

Next time you’re with your horse, spend a few minutes thinking about times when you might be in synchrony: be it in movement, breath or thought. Then think of ways that could happen more often, because if it does, along with it will come the cooperation, the generosity, the unity. That’s when we move from Huygen’s “odd kind of sympathy” to a new kind of empathy.

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4 thoughts on “An odd kind of sympathy.

  1. Great post 🙂 This is the reason it is so important to spend time with your horse NOT riding. It is in the hanging out with the herd, sharing activities (or inactivity) that we become synchronous. Your writing is great.

  2. The subject of synchronisation is one very close to my heart for some time now. I am so thankful to you for your thoughtful post, sharing your insights in this matter.
    I have read some other wonderful texts in the matter, for example by Linda Kohanov, in the physical reasons why horses are so good at synchronisation.
    I know for sure that synchronisation is helpful for me not only in relation to my horse, but also to my friends, workmates, and family members. But I found it hard if not impossible to do it on purpose. With my horse my trying to achieve it mostly resulted in loss of energy and loss of contact – the exact opposite of what I wanted!
    My first big experience of synchronisation happened when I was taking part in a open air musical production with horses. I was in a group of people that was working on the ground, each of us holding a horse or pony on a long rope. We were doing a choreography to a beautiful song, and while developing this choreography, I learnt about synchronisation. At first I was always looking at the others, trying to match their step, to be at the right place at the right moment. But it did not work, I was always behind! It was so frustrating. And them something happened, I understood the forms, I knew the music and rythm, I concentrated on doing my “dance”, and suddenly it worked! It was amazing. Even when things went wrong, I could maintain the rythm. I would just do a little loop or something, to be back in the proper place, and outsiders wouldn’t even notice the “mistake”.
    Sadly I was not yet able to just take this experience and use it in the rest of my life. But last year, in the same place and with some of the same people and horses, I was part of an incredible, life altering workshop, where I once even experienced synchronisation while riding! We were five riders riding in a circle at a walk, and the only goal was to keep the distance between each horse. I was riding on a horse I did not know, an older mare. And it was incredible. I am not a good rider. Horses tend to slow down with me in their back and I spend a lot of time trying to correct things, but am always a tick behind… This time was different. I sat on that horse, barely doing anything, and she and I were always in our place, in peace, in harmony.
    I hold to those memories because they show that it is possible, even for me!

  3. What a great post. I have had those fleeting moments when I’ve been in synchrony with my horse. I have a few moments of exhilaration and then suddenly become aware that it’s perfect. That awareness seems to be the thing that derails me. I really must learn to live in the moment!

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