Oxytocin May Improve Sensorimotor Prediction In Unidirectional Coupling

Study participants receiving oxytocin, a hormone known to promote social bonding, are more synchronized when finger-tapping together, than participants receiving a placebo, a new study shows.

The study, from the Center for Music in the Brain Aarhus University, The Royal Academy of Music, Denmark, observed this effect when pairs of people, placed in separate rooms tapped together in a leader/follower relationship.

When people synchronise their movements together, for example by walking in time, clapping or making music, they seem to like each other more and report feeling greater affiliation with each other. Perhaps you have experienced something like this in a crowd at a concert, clapping hands along with the music on stage, and singing the words to a popular songs along with the rest of the audience.

Oxytocin Social Effects

Oxytocin, a naturally occurring hormone, has been shown to promote social interaction, such as cooperation and affiliation. However, until now it has been unclear whether the social effect of oxytocin is a direct one, or whether oxytocin in fact primarily affects synchronisation and only secondarily social behaviors.

The researchers in this study set out to test these questions by measuring whether increased levels of oxytocin affected how pairs of participants synchronised together to a steady beat. One group of pairs received oxytocin through nasal spray, and another group received a placebo, also through nasal spray.

Results suggest that oxytocin does affect synchronisation between participants, but the study did not find that oxytocin influenced how much tappers liked their tapping partners. The followers in the oxytocin group were less variable in their tapping to the beat suggesting that they were better at predicting the taps of their leaders.

So oxytocin’s social effect may be explained by its role in facilitating prediction in interaction, even in the absence of subjectively experienced social affiliation.

Ability to synchronise to a musical beat is mostly a skill seen only in humans. The study contributes to our understanding of how this form of human behaviour is affected by socio-biological factors, such as oxytocin and leader-follower relationships.

It also highlights how music creates and maintains social cohesion in an evolutionary perspective.

L. Gebauer et al
Oxytocin improves synchronisation in leader-follower interaction
Scientific Reports (2016). DOI: 10.1038/srep38416