Babies as Budding Shamans — Little Trance Dancers?

A new (open access) study published in the Proceedings for the National Academy of Sciences finds that pre-verbal infants move rhythmically to music.  Infants, in other words, appear to be born dancers.  Their ability to move to a beat was particularly pronounced when the stimulus was a beat, such as those produced by percussion or drumming.

In addition, music seems to make babies happy.  The scientific language used to describe this emotional effect is a bit dry:  “the degree of rhythmic coordination with music is positively related to displays of positive affect.”

This is a fascinating study but what does it mean?  The authors are not sure:

Assuming that humans possess a brain mechanism for coordinating movement to music and other metrically regular sounds, one that is present from infancy, what kind of adaptive function would this mechanism serve? One possibility is that the involved brain mechanism was a target of natural selection for music; another is that it evolved for some other function that just happens to be relevant for music processing.

Percussion and dancing are perhaps the most widespread of ritual techniques.  Shamans, in particular, use drum and dance to achieve altered states of consciousness or trance.

I suppose it is only a matter of time before someone concocts a “just so” story along these lines: dancing and trancing are adaptations which facilitated shamanism, the earliest form of “religion” which evolved to provide the moral glue that holds groups together.

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