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Fit To Bust: The Neuroscience Of Sex And Rock ‘N Roll

Those humans whose brains can echo a song’s beat — their neurons pulsing along in time — can, in turn, move their body to that very same syncopation.

August 30, 2019

Katie Tandy
id iom

re you someone who likes to be watched? To feel eyes sliding over your body and face? Do you like feeling your body strain to delight them?

I do. I love to perform. I’m in a shitty:excellent half grunge:glam rock pseudo cover band here in Oakland — we’re called The Shattucks — and every time I climb the 12 inches to whatever sticky stage we’ve commandeered for the evening, my heart heaves in my chest anticipating the joy about to course through it.

The rhythm of rock and roll drives me wild. My body rising to meet the unrelenting beat. I want to please you. I want to make that Kinks song soar — Christ, can’t you feel how fucking beautiful Waterloo station is through the sweaty-palmed new love of Terry and Julie?! I want to sing it in the way you sing it alone — but better. I want to do it justice, I want to do the stage justice. I want to know that if Tina fucking Turner happened to stroll into the Stork Club on Telegraph Avenue, she’d know I had wrung myself out on the altar of her song trying to honor it with my own little white girl sex magic.

I want you to feel the music in your chest as my nails drag up and down my thighs keeping time. Can you feel them cutting into your flesh, gentle and persistent? See the sweat on my lip, the back of my neck growing damp — the tiny hairs curling — when I start to smile into the microphone, when my throat starts to itch with a scream?

When the song stops there is always an awful pause, a hitching breath in my throat and a drop in my gut, because in truth the applause isn’t what I’m there for. I hear it, the quiet beautiful thunder of palms on palms, the little yelps of joy flung from the darkness in the back, but I’m there to feel the rhythm of the music, of our bodies keeping time.

I love the feeling of simultaneity. You and me and me and you and me and you are exchanging eyes and words and sweat and air and sloshes of warming beer and the tiny clicks of melting ice in this small room — our hips and arms flinging in time together, separated by thin slices of plywood and three feet of air. But I can still feel you. There is a fleeting feeling of togetherness, of being on the same planet, of actually sharing the same moment. And while the music roars and our bodies rage, the songs tell our mind a story; the song surfaces the past. Other bodies. Other times.

This is part of the reason I find sex so fantastic — you’re utterly not alone. The presence of flesh against mine — softly, roughly, it doesn’t matter — is very comforting to me.

So too with singing.

The rhythm of all these bodies moving to the sound of other bodies playing instruments. Hands, arms, feet and tongue clicking on the teeth and splitting the lips apart to issue a moan, a declaration. And from ourselves we pull a yell, a lament — love lost and found again, perhaps.

Lust, joy, misery. We sing and fuck our way to being heard. To lancing all those nasty blisters.

The sanctioned screaming, the rise of throats shining under a cheap spinning ball of tiny white lights. The suspension of life for poetry. For the clarity that fleeting nonsense can bring.

I’m an alligator, I’m a mama-papa coming for you! I’m a space invader, I’ll be a rock and roller bitch for you!” I snarl, and lash my lips with my tongue.

When I’m saying, “tell me I’m a good girl,” when I’m yelling, “I love the way you fuck me!” These words, these chords, these beasts-with-two-backs yowlings — they’re a distillation of a feeling. They’re somehow more and less articulate than what’s actually happening. Sex extracts lust, affection, degradation, love — infinite possibility. Rock refines and simplifies and transmutes consciousness — rage, curiosity, freedom, desire, infinite possibilities! — into a 4-minute experience you can consume again and again.

These distillations are life, but exponentially more interesting — fucking and singing to the beat of the drums, the beat of your actual teeming and steaming heart.

The rhythm drives me wild.

Neural entrainment occurs when regular sensory input — like the driving drums of Up In Arms — trigger synchronized bursts of brain activity. Once activated, aroused and excited, these neurons can anticipate said rhythm and react, moving your body in time, bringing your hands together to clap, your feet to stomp. As Sonnie and Cher famously warbled, “the beat goes on”; even if the music stops, your brain and body can maintain that external rhythm.

Entrainment can enhance our processing of incoming information by allocating neural resources to the right place at the right time, but how does the human brain build these internal, periodic beats from external rhythmic inputs? And why the hell can some people dance to a beat and some…can’t?

In a study published in Nature examining these very questions, they discovered a few different things, the first being that the strength of one’s neural entrainment was directly correlated to their ability to move in synchronization to an external beat. Those humans with “strong neural responses” were more accurate in tapping a finger in perfect time to the rhythm.

Those humans whose brains echoed the song’s beat — their neurons pulsing along in time — could, in turn, move their body to that very same beat.

But they also found that some individuals’ abilities varied wildly in their ability to keep a regular rhythm versus a syncopated one. “Syncopation is to rhythm what dissonance is to harmony,” writes music education doctoral fellow Ethan Hein. A syncopated rhythm has accents on unexpected beats and requires a more subtle and nuanced ear; syncopated rhythms keep you anticipating a resolution, a return to a steady flow of perfectly spaced beats.

In short, some humans require external physical stimulation to perceive a beat — that steady thump thump thump of the bass drum — while others can generate the beat internally or even anticipate the “out of time” silences often synonymous with jazz or African rhythms.

But why remains elusive.

“…it is not known how neural entrainment to rhythms is related to the subjective experience of groove (the desire to move along with music or rhythm), the perception of a regular beat, the perception of complexity, and the experience of pleasure.”
Experimental Brain Research, August 2019.
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Peter Keller, professor of Cognitive Science at Western Sydney University echoes the still-elusive neuroscience that governs our ability to move in time with external rhythms.

“We still don’t know why individual differences in the strength of neural entrainment occur in the first place. They may reflect the efficiency of neural responses at early levels of auditory processing, such as brainstem responses. Or the degree of connectivity between higher-level auditory and motor cortical regions.”

What we do know is that steeping children in the making of music, of dancing and singing and listening to notes and rhythms and beats positively affects their cognitive abilities and improves rhythmic discrimination skills.

And of course there is the womb; the rushing blood, the pulse in our veins, the flood of life coursing through the uterine artery; this is our foundational music and rhythm, the sounds of every one of our fledgling lives.

I grew up with my parents dancing. Because they grew up dancing. Both had attended dancing school — a common WASPy hobby — and had been socialized that this was the way people, well, socialized. Teenagers were gathered together in an auditorium or local community hall and plied with iced tea and cracks and the lindy hop. You learned to move alone and you learned to move together, arms strong, feet nimble, keds and loafers flashing. They jitterbugged to The Loving Spoonful; they did the twist to Chubby Checker and the jerk to Wilson Picket. I was raised on these songs, on these sounds, on these beautifully archaic motions of connecting with another body in space.

I think my brother was part of the last bastion of partner dancing schools; in 1988 in South Salem, New York he was 12 years old and learning to hold a fledgling woman’s body as they glided about to Little Eva’s “The Locomotion”.

When you hear my father talk about going to bars and everyone is “just standing around” — not only not dancing, but certainly not dancing together in one another’s arms, there is a real head-shaking sadness. Something has been lost. There is such joy in the intimacy of knowing one another’s bodies in a non-sexual way.

I grew up dancing with my father everywhere we could — bars, restaurants, concerts, weddings, family parties, our living room. He taught me how to anticipate the change in the music and adjust my body accordingly. If you commit too hard you can’t bounce back the other way. If you don’t stay on the balls of your feet you’ll never fly fast enough to the rhythm. He taught me to follow, he taught me to lead.

I watched with crushing delight as my first boyfriend after college took my best friend in his arms at her older sister’s wedding and immediately collapse in laughter. Katie always leads! they howled at one another. We don’t know what to do!

I love the coupling of bodies in space sans the prospect of sex. In my adolescence, there was, of course, grinding — who could ever forget the hot pressure of pubis mons on pubis mons to D’Angelo in a badly-lit gymnasium?! And then there were the slow songs largely sighed and snickered at. Couples would drape and monotonously circle left foot right foot like dreamy bovines while the girls and bolder boys would same-sex partner dance like bad tangoers. But nowhere in all of my growing up did we dance together to music. And I wanted to. Badly.

These days someone will grow privy (nearly always a man sadly enough) to what must be my palpable interest in partner dancing, gesture a palm to mine and whip me around the dance floor. Their fingers press my back, their forearms flex and spin me. I whip around twice more pivoting on my right foot before shuffling my shoulders in a pony prance towards them. The improvisational joy of my body in motion with someone else’s — the music grinding its way through your ears and hips all the while — is something akin to freedom.

There’s some queer contra dancing here in Oakland where I can occasionally get my fix of human on human dialogue, but in truth, it’s not my kind of music. I like to dance to rock and roll.

The bookThis Is Your Brain on Music” by Daniel Levitin argues that the ability to dance — to move in time with a beat — is a product of sexual selection. His studies explore the idea that organisms who can keep to the beat just might be better adapted to their environment and produce healthier offspring. Good dancers are more desirable. And good dancers have rhythm.

The Darwinian theory goes that all animals — yes, humans too — choose mates who display reproductive fitness. And while this can manifest in all kinds of ways, Levitin says we need look no further than the peacock to see a good example of these seemingly insubstantial but ultimately salient traits.

“The size of the peacock’s tail correlates with the bird’s age, health, and overall fitness,” he writes. “The colorful tail signals that the healthy peacock has metabolism to waste, he is so fit, so together, so wealthy (in terms of resources) that he has extra resources to put into something that is purely for display and aesthetic purposes.”

But this is not to say that rhythm is superfluous or purely for looks.

Rather Levitin argues that an ability to perceive a beat and move your corporeal being in time is actually showcasing a powerful trifecta between your genes, body, and mind.

“…under the conditions that would have existed throughout most of our evolutionary history in which music and dance were completely intertwined, musicianship/danceship would have been a sign of sexual fitness on two fronts.”

First, an ability to dance and sing — particularly for a good long sweaty while — conveys stamina, a strong physical and mental health. All that running man-ing, all those drop splits and high kicks? That means you’ll be able to run down that goddamn deer for dinner. And all that complex choreography? Levitin says you’re better equipped to handle a complex environment.

Being accomplished in music and dance also means you have resources and time to burn. Food and shelter are clearly not an issue if you have the luxury of learning to move your body through space. The presence of an unnecessary skill is apparently very very sexy.

“Improvisation and novelty in a combined music/dance performance would indicate the cognitive flexibility of the dancer, signaling his potential for cunning and strategizing while on the hunt,” Levitin writes.

And, he continues, “if music was nonadaptive, then music lovers should be at some evolutionary or survival disadvantage…Any activity that has low adaptive value is unlikely to be practiced for very long in the species’ history, or to occupy a significant portion of an individual’s time and energy.”

When I enter myself, when you enter me, I crave a steady motion, a lapping of waves, a working of jaw on jaw, tongue on tongue, my vagina pulsing with my pulse, swallowing you in a swinging rhythm.

In and out. Back and forth. Like rocking chairs or a wood-splintered swing. Your hands keeping time on my skin; my thighs and ass stinging, ruddy red with the drumming. Play me loud, forte.

Let me lose myself in the sounds of our bodies, in the cadence of your breath, in the sweat sliding slow, out of time in a silent rhythm of its own devising.

The synchronization required in sex — without ever saying out loud, let’s try this in crisp quarter notes OK? — has always amazed me. It creates a kind of hyperfocus that can silence the mind; you can fuck your way into a flow state.

We access a state of sensory absorption that is akin to a trance, explains neuroscientist Adam Safron, as the rhythmic nature of sexual stimulation causes neurons in the brain to oscillate at the same frequency as your body.

Just like rock music. It’s that same neural entrainment. “Establishing rhythms is no small task even with respect to moving a single body,” he writes.

“These control challenges are further compounded when this body is being used to precisely stimulate a separate mechanical system, which may itself be oscillating or gyrating. Furthermore, optimal sexual interaction involves modulating activity based on cues ranging from gross movements to vocal signals, to subtle patterns of emotional expression. The more variables to be integrated, the more difficult this integration becomes, and the more sophistication required for the controlling nervous system…
Human sexual performance depends on being capable of not only switching between multiple rhythms, but of inferring the best times for these changes.”

Can you feel it? The beat? It’s just about to — stop.

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