I was recently reminded of a brilliant clip from British comedy show “The Mighty Boosh,” which illustrates the process of empathy involved in group activities.
The question of group versus individual participation came up when reading this article about Ride the Divide, a movie about the 2,711 mile off-road mountain bike Tour Divide 2008 race. The article points out different ways that people deal with cycling in grueling conditions for a month straight in their race from Banff, Alberta down the Continental Divide to Antelope Wells, New Mexico. The point of the article was that many competitors (including a group that tied for third place) preferred to ride in groups, and in one case the leader waited for the second-place competitor to catch up in order to ride together for a while. Interesting mental and emotional changes must occur over the course of this intense race, as with any long-distance race, and we’re still just beginning to learn about how exercise and social exercise in particular influence brain chemistry. What creates the urge for people to exercise in groups, especially in a competitive setting, rather than taking a more individual approach? How does one choose to take part in a group activity rather than celebrating our independence “in somber isolation?”
A 2006 study showed that running in isolation increases stress levels and can minimize the positive effects of running, unless one runs for a very long distance. In my home town of Portland, Oregon we are experiencing an upswing in “bootcamp” classes, aimed at giving people a quick burst of exercise in a group setting, reducing the stress response and maximizing the positive neurotransmitter response of exercise. The merits of both the Portland Adventure Boot Camp for Women and the Mount Tabor Boot Camp have been lauded by friends of mine who can’t say enough about how fun and supportive the groups are. We already know that aerobic exercise in general stimulates the brain, increases neural plasticity and decreases degenerative changes (see this literature review). But the addition of social interaction actually synergystically alters this effect, potentially targeting additional areas of neural tissue. This can be a great reason to make sure that you’re having fun with or at least identifying with friends who share an aerobic activity like running or biking.
Of course, since I am a student of Chinese Medicine, I must include a mention of Qigong. I am continually inspired by how different I feel when practicing Qigong movement and meditation in a group rather than alone. The group classes allow me to relax more quickly and achieve a higher level of focus and deeper relaxation. Group acupuncture can create a similar effect as well; often times I feel more relaxed in a group acupuncture treatment than in an individual treatment setting. During a treatment at Working Class Acupuncture, for example, one person started gently snoring in their comfortable recliner, which stimulated mild snoring from a few other patients in quick succession, creating a gentle white-noise of sleepy sounds! In the group setting, it seems that people can somehow mirror the beneficial effect of treatments for each other, in a similar way that we feel empathy via neural mirroring.
Neural mirroring has been postulated as an evolutionary trait that allows us to learn extremely quickly via mimicry. It also allows us to function optimally in social settings by actually experiencing in our own minds the mental state of someone else by observing the physical manifestation of that mental state in another person. This is one definition of empathy. Here is a fantastic video by NOVA that explains neural mirroring (the transcript is a nice summary as well).
And now back again to The Mighty Boosh. Now you may see some further parallels with this goofy yet on-target clip:
Vince and Howard exhibit excellent neural mirroring during their “crimp” session. The humor lies in Howard’s excellent ability to empathise with Vince for a short time, yet he ultimately resists this companionship and insists (unconvincingly) that humans are meant to be alone.
And if you’d like to measure how well your brainwaves are mirroring someone else’s, now thanks to these guys, you can give it a try yourself!
Thanks for making it through a bit of a ramble here… let me know what you think about group versus individual exercise, meditation, or acupuncture! What gives you the most benefit?