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On Shared Experience

Posted On June 12, 2024

This past Monday, I was transported by the live music of Jacob Collier, whose screamin’, croonin’, leapin’ performance with his stupendous band took us from the edge of the sun all the way to Purple Rain (yes, he covered it!) in the wide shelter of the Minneapolis Armory. If you don’t know Jacob’s music, I am not the one to describe it. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, go directly to this YouTube playlist.


What I can say is this: being an introvert and a workaholic myself, and so not being a frequent enough concert-goer, I had lost track of how live music forges community through the shared experience of patient (and impatient) anticipation, exquisite beauty, wild excitement, and more. This concert was like going swimming at dusk with 3,000 of my closest friends, only much louder. We got up on our feet together, we lost our minds together, we cried our eyes out together.  And we sang together, in Jacob’s signature audience choir! Without his saying a word, we all found ourselves following his gestures for pitch and volume, oohing and aahing in complex five-part harmonies, in a way that my bones will never forget.  On our way out, we kept singing and dancing and waving - and we exchanged contact info with each other, hoping to carry this feeling forward, together. 


I know that concerts, especially Jacob’s, are exceptionally moving, yet at the heart of this whole crashing marvel was the fundamental, ordinary capacity we humans possess to actually share experience with each other. This is a natural miracle, because of how we can also be weighted down by loneliness, the feeling of being isolated, bereft or forlorn. We may sometimes lie awake worrying (well, I worry, it’s my job) about solipsism, getting stuck in our own heads, not even knowing if the “blue” I see is even a little of the same “blue” someone else sees. But we can get ourselves back up in this old world and reach out again and again in search of connection and community.  I believe this is possible based on our direct familiarity with shared experience, on the neuroscience of the social brain (see here for a tome) and on the power of intentionally pursuing interpersonal connection. 


To share experience is, according to developmental psychologist Steven Gutstein, to turn one’s attention from individual experience of the world to taking in another person’s parallel or interactive experience, with both of our experiences happening in the same moment (see for example, this video and article). Shared experience is a fluid movement between personal attention to oneself and social attention to others.  It is the feeling when I know, fleetingly or deep in my soul, that someone I am with is having an experience resonant with my own. You know this experience. It might illuminate us in a sudden look of mutual understanding at a meal, catch us up in recognition so we say each others name at a gathering, link us in a spontaneous outburst of chortles as the carousel starts up, or hold us together in intense, ongoing focus on a project requiring both of our skills and perspectives. That awareness of “being in it together” is a distinctive remedy to loneliness, and it is sublimely satisfying. We can even feel it, sometimes, when our trusted connection to a dear one is stretched across many miles - we can know we are both gazing at the same twinkle of starlight or listening to the same ocean - and we feel more bonded than when we just abstractly think about the fact that we have similar personality traits or that we are good friends or that we have a shared interest in an artist or genre or aesthetic. In shared experience, two (or sometimes more) people feel, and read in each other, “Hey, look at what we found!!” and “Isn’t this wonderous!” and “Let’s do this some more!” 


We are powerfully moved by this oft-nonverbal sense of bonding in shared experience, because it brings to our consciousness the neurological mirroring and coordination of the sensations of two or more human beings. We are capable of feeling it because we are mammals and have multi-layered brains. Emotional bonding seems to be a mammalian thing - dogs and elephants can deeply bond emotionally and specifically, while snakes and birds apparently are usually just good friends and don’t care so much about finding a good fit. Yet in addition to having a mammalian emotion system boosted by social hormones like oxytocin, each human is also born with dense networks of communication between lower and higher brain layers that allow one to actually feel, in one’s nervous system, the movements and emotions of another living being - and know that we are both feeling a similar thing.  We are separate, yet feel with each other, for a moment- it feels like a mystery but there are real reasons why we experience real togetherness! And when we are moving in synchrony with each other, discerning the same melodic details, holding our breath for the next modulation of harmony, shouting and jumping with the same beat, then our social attachment systems are actively resonating together, possibly even at the same literal frequency (here’s a video with details). Neurodiversity allows us to have a wide variety of ways of experiencing this coordination of movement and emotion (more to come on that in another blog). Yet all humans are capable of developing into conscious social connection and of finding community through shared experience. 


By intentionally valuing, highlighting, and questing for such shared experience, we find more of it, and lead others into it, so that in seeking we may sometimes find that remedy to loneliness. In music, we can jam or blend or juxtapose within the joint purpose of creating. In therapy, we can play with toys or instruments or words to make an “us” so that it is safe to try new things or confront old fears and hurts. In families and friend circles, we can sing or play games, or watch comedy or a favorite team, or make angels in the snow or sand castles on the beach, or walk in the woods or the city together, building lasting bonds of unity among distinct and unique persons. When we risk meeting each other with an unguarded curiosity, and actively highlight and rejoice together in that which we are sharing - the laugh, the commitment, the music - then we can better welcome a sense of being a known self among other selves.  And we can carry this feeling back from the concert at the edge of the sun, even as, eventually, we must away, must move back from our community into our sacred and unique individualities.  We do not have to be left alone on a rock - we can bring that (sometimes loud) shared swim memory with us, and hold onto each other as the warm connected persons we are meant to be, again and again and again.