By Iris Oropesa Mecías firstname.lastname@example.org
April 2, 2020
Translated by Merri Ansara for CubaNews.
Edited by Walter Lippmann
One of the issues that we have valued much more since the beginning of the current pandemic is the work of every worker who has been kept in place. From artists who play for us in their homes, to street sweepers who stay in the streets, bakers and cooks, caretakers of the elderly, traffic inspectors, teachers who give digital classes on their own initiative… and yes, them, the everyday doctors, whom we applaud at agreed hours, a gesture that seems to us still small in the face of their daily greatness and which in countries like Spain has become almost religious in its fulfilment.
These are also days when we have to learn to deal with matters in an intelligent way. That is why this time Detrás de la ciencia goes in search of that mystery of hundreds of people clapping their hands on their balconies as we Cubans do every night. Is the applause an exclusively human gesture? How did it come about? What are the secrets of its contagion? What does science know about this social phenomenon?
Most human beings just beat the palms of their two hands rhythmically. In some sectors there are variations. There are universities where tables are beaten when a lecture is over, or the well-known clapboards of tobacco farmers, for example. But, in general, applause is an expression of admiration for a well-done performance. And we find it so natural that we might come to believe it is part of our DNA.
Joaquim J. Vèa, a Catalan primatologist, has explained the human exclusivity of applause, quoted by the magazine Quo: “After many years studying primates in the forests, I have never seen a (non-human) primate applaud”.
This phenomenon is discovered totally socially. We are not born as a species knowing what applause is in its current concept. We need to learn it in society. History, then, is a science that has much to say about it.
The emergence of the custom dates back to ancient civilizations. The ancient Greeks expressed their approval of plays by cheering and clapping their hands. The Romans preferred to snap their fingers, but they also clapped and waved the tips of their robes, or used special strips just to generate a sound of admiration.
It is often said that Emperor Nero paid nearly 5,000 people to applaud his public appearances. They would practice two types of applause: imbrex, with hollowed-out hands, and testa, with flat hands.
Over the centuries, several sounds alternated in the taste to express approval of a show: whistle and even spit became among the favorites, widely used in the seventeenth century.
The churches, both during the Middle Ages and much later, in the Protestant era, played an important role alongside the theater, in the social development of applause. But even when the Catholic clergy forbade these manifestations at masses, coughing, humming or blowing through the nose became the way a brilliant sermon or a well-toned chorus was approved.
But this journey does not yet answer: why do we do it, what human needs do we satisfy in this very contagious cultural fact?
Psychologists say that any form of applause satisfies the human need to express an opinion, a euphoric emotion, and the need to communicate with a protagonist with whom we cannot engage in a conversation in person. Social psychology specialists also explain that applause gives the audience the feeling that they are participating. Since the audience cannot pat the actors on the back, they applaud.
Another mystery studied by psychologists, which was published in a study in the journal Nature, by the way, was the highly contagious nature of applause.
The specialists who analyzed thousands of recordings of massive applause in different parts of the world concluded that the great contagion of applause is not due to the imperiousness that is recognized in itself, but to the social nature of the act of applauding.
Another study, from Uppsala University in Sweden and published in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface, sets out mathematical models for measuring applause in a social group, and shows that if a person starts clapping 2.1 seconds after a lecture or presentation ends, 0.8 seconds later the whole group starts clapping, whether they like it or not.
“We used the selection of the Bayesian model to test several hypotheses about the spread of simple social behavior, applause after an academic presentation. The probability that people will start clapping increased in proportion to the number of other audience members already ‘infected’ by this social contagion, regardless of their spatial proximity,” explained the lead author.
The Greek Plutarch (46-127 BC) says that due to paid plaudits, for example, Philemon of Syracuse (361-263 BC) managed to surpass the famous Menander (342-291 BC) several times in theatrical performances, not necessarily because he surpassed him in the dramatic.
But science, this time physics, has discovered more than mysterious features of this social action. The authors of an article on applause published several years ago in Nature pointed out that they alternate in periods in which the ovation is an incoherent sum of palms along with other periods in which the audience applauds in a rhythmic and synchronized way, and they verified that in the synchronized applause the frequency of the palms of each spectator is half that of the incoherent applause.
The dynamics of the group applause was summarized: at the beginning of the ovation most of the applauses are enthusiastic and synchronization is not possible; but after about ten seconds the spectators reduce to half their applause frequency and a synchronization period begins. If you are a ballet lover, you will not let these scientists lie.
The journalist Juan Manuel Rodríguez Parrondo explained it this way: “Imagine that at the end of a play you have especially liked and you applaud as you would in the theatre; count the number of palms you give during ten seconds and obtain the frequency of the applause; repeat the experiment, but imagining that you are in the situation of synchronized applause. You will see that the frequency in the second case is about half that of the first.
This mystery of frequency doubling and synchronization of applause is a widespread phenomenon in nature and there is no particular reason for it, but it has been proved that nature likes periodic oscillations.
Heart rhythms, menstrual rhythm, the swing of a swing… Thus, a person tends to always applaud with two frequencies, one double the other, depending on his or her enthusiasm. But in short, it seems to be true that we have an unconscious attraction when we synchronize our applause with the rest of the audience.
Which of these scientific explanations do we put into practice when people from various regions of the world go out to their balconies to give their doctors a standing ovation? Probably, the psychological explanation of wanting to be part of something, of communicating with actors that we cannot pat on the back, this time, the best actors and actresses: all the health personnel who every day put themselves in the line of battle against the virus that is plaguing us. To compensate us, the Spanish clinical psychologist Juan Castilla assures us: “It is an invaluable gesture. We are not aware of the positive impact this generates”.
By Manuel Calviño
March 21, 2020
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
A hidden threat often triggers fear and anxiety on a personal level, in each of us. Knowing the possibly fatal effects of the threatening agent, multiplies the anguish and with it the tendency to seek solutions usually extreme and unlikely to be effective. If, in addition, these effects are visible, and they already affect others, then the cycle closes: perception of indiscriminate-risk increases the idea of vulnerability-uncertain resolution behavior. But even though it is known that in a pandemic situation, such as the one our planet is experiencing today, and our country is no exception, some are tempted to fall into the trap that distances them from appropriate behavior. There appear then, behaviors of neglect and denial (those that underestimate the situation, do not recognize it in its shocking reality, or hallucinate a certain invulnerability), and also behaviors that contain the necessary ones, but with a tendency to transcend them in excess, so much so that they can produce the opposite effect.
I believe that, in general, we have more in focus those who, due to an excess of confidence (personal and institutional), from an absolutely mistaken deduction (“nothing is going to happen here”, “I’m not going to be so unlucky”, and others similar), without taking into account the extra personal vulnerabilities. In other words, that is to say without the slightest perception of risk, ignore the essential measures of protection and care. I confess that some psychological traits make some more likely than others to build such an attitude. But nothing justifies or sustains it. We are what we are capable of doing with who we are. And that is how we build a better way of being.
But it is important to focus also on the other end of the bell of Gauss, that which describes what would be a normal distribution. Perhaps, by intensifying in order to attract attention, I mean those who hype-act the measures, with innovations of dubious value, moved from an excess of anxiety mobilization. When this happens, and the sense of basic care in the face of the pandemic is passed on, that which scientific knowledge dictates as essential actions, the way to face the situation seems to be helping us, but it may be harming us. Then, from a harmful mental disposition, any care seems little to us, and we can begin to produce not so careful care, which by its extreme nature, I insist, can be a generator of damage. Exaggerating is a common way of falling into what is being avoided.
Pandemics, in any of their forms, but the more aggressive they are, the worse they tend to promote among some people the idea, and not just the idea, but the deep belief, that along with the essential isolation of suspected and already victimized cases, the best thing is the total absence of links with everything around them. What, without a doubt, if this were the case, would have to be undertaken with supreme responsibility and at the right time. I therefore share a vigilance and a just and legitimate concern in this direction. A concern that is not stubborn and excessive, but constructive and sustained. In any case, legitimate, understandable and with the right to speak. Because only by talking will it be productive.
But I would like to refer to that action that implies having the unreasonable certainty that the enemy is anywhere, or rather everywhere, and that we have to find a hiding place at any cost and at any price. And I am not talking about the care and limitation of direct physical contact, which is usually one of the causes of the epidemic’s spread, but about the spiritual, identity-based sustenance of the forms of expression of human values. It would seem that for some people limiting behavior is synonymous with limiting, invalidating, the values they contain.
Let’s think about the challenge of distance. As a way to substantially cut the chain of transmission, scientists and professionals from many parts confirm the need to maintain a certain distance, they call for so-called social distance. What does this mean? In operational terms, maintaining a social distance means: not being in places where many people are, staying away from crowds of people; keeping a distance of about two meters from other people; not touching other people. Perhaps it is better to talk about physical interpersonal distance, to show that it is proposed to considerably limit physical contact, since it is one of the most powerful causes of the spread of the disease. Then, it is clear that shaking hands, hugging, kissing, these expressions of affection, love, friendship, companionship, tend to be substantially avoided in the current conditions of a pandemic.
But distance is not necessarily a problem. The problem is always separation. With you in the distance, it is not only a beautiful poetic phrase, but also an ethical attitude, a human relationship. García Márquez confirms it: “Distance is not a problem. The problem is the humans, who do not know how to love without touching, without seeing, or without hearing…” Ernesto Lecuona, in his beautiful Always in My Heart, convinces when he says that “nothing should be able to stop me from loving you”. The essence, is the essence, no matter how many different ways it is expressed. The essence of expressions of affection lies in the feelings and values that motivate them, and these can be lived, expressed and shared in many more ways.
Limiting is essential. But it is not necessary to limit, on the contrary, it is necessary to multiply, that spiritual, valuable substantiality that is expressed in this way. I am talking about the challenge of making the kiss, the embrace, the handshake felt, where it should not be physically realized. We know, paraphrasing Galeano now: good and authentic human feelings and values cannot be silenced. If they are not expressed in one way, it will be in another. But they cannot not communicate, they cannot stop interacting, co-living. To silence them would be to spread the maleficence of the pandemic.
The same goes for collaboration, solidarity, interpersonal relations, willingness to help and support. The axiom “all for one and one for all” applies, with undoubtedly different expressions, to these moments of indispensable precautions, but which cannot undermine the human essence. What we can achieve will always be more, and more forceful, if we do it together. That, on pain of being accused of being super-optimistic, is to emerge strengthened, resilient, from such violent and destructive adversity. That is, to take charge of an intelligent optimism.
A pandemic is not just a health, scientific, and political challenge. It is also, and above all from my professional perspective, an attitudinal challenge. It is our attitudes that protect us. It is they that get us through the situation. It is they who ensure that among the foreseeable consequences, there are also achievable conquests, just as “among the thorns, flowers are born”.
I defend, summon and fight for the self-care of each and every one of us. But, I need a self-care that implies, that includes the other (like a quantum reality, I could say some physicist). That self-care that knows how to take care of others, of ourselves. That which is not only personal responsibility, but human responsibility. That which commits us to preserve, and also to nourish and cultivate, our human essence, our condition as human beings. I say this because I know it professionally and scientifically, and I believe it deeply, “if I did not believe, what would I be?
But since temptations exist, since the human mind gives for the good and the not so good (even the bad), gives for the earthly and the divine, then it is necessary to be attentive, and to refer to our personal essence as human beings. I say more, to our national being, to our identity, to our being Cuban [somos cubanos]. So, to focus on our light zones and not on the dark ones, on what makes us a country where everybody is a brother, a partner, a friend, where anybody throws a line at anybody, where if we solve everybody, if we are participative, proactive, and extroverted (sometimes to diffuse limits), we are recognized as good people. Like that neighbor in my neighborhood, whom I observed from my balcony, who suffered the denial of a handshake with a buddy on the corner, and with genuine acceptance commented:
Who’s going to change what we are, let alone a virus, however many crowns he has?” And separating himself two meters away he said to the other: “Hand or no hand, I love you, my sister. You are on my team.”
You have to be careful. You have to take care of yourself. You have to let yourself be taken care of. You have to take care of each other. And we must also preserve the Cuban soul. “Let it not be said, brother, let it not be said.”