The beautiful game is dead.
The soccer giant favored to win its sixth World Cup has lost its touch, and Brazil’s jogo bonito, that spirited and smooth choreography, is no longer the veritable samba it used to be.
Watching Pelé’s deceptive dribble of the ball was like watching the passo de samba, the stationary, speedy steps of those bronzed, glittered, feathered beautiful bodies that light up the Carnaval samba school parades. Obsess for yourself:
You can even anticipate the next moves – no matter the theme of the samba school, no matter the Brazilian team — because somehow the spirit of the action is, well, moving. Our bodies unconsciously yank about as if we are kicking that ball right into the net.
But why is the jogo bonito so delicious to watch? Is there a seductive “moving” gene in the Brazilian DNA?
Turns out that we — that raucous, vuvuzela-tooting crowd — enjoy watching the action because it is all happening right inside our head. We are our own audience.
But how can this be?
When research subjects watched films of ballet or capoeira (a Brazilian martial art), scans showed that the same areas in the brain are activated as those used to execute the very movements they were watching. Our brain virtually “moves” along every step of the way, so much so that it stimulates physiological responses — such as increased oxygen consumption, increased heart-rate — to the point where the weak hearted might suffer a heart attack merely by watching strenuous sports.
But how does the brain do this?
Giacomo Rizzolatti and his colleagues at the University of Parma, Italy, discovered that the brain has specialized cells, aptly called mirror neurons, which mimic the actions of others. This was illustrated in “point light” experiments where people watched films of people dancing, cycling and doing other activities in a dark room with tiny lights attached to their shoulders, elbows, wrists, knees and ankles. The observers easily identified not just the actions of the “performers” but their intentions, emotions, beliefs, genders and personalities, too. Just from the point lights alone!
This is why mentally “going through the motions” is just about as good as rehearsing to improve a dancer’s or a golfer’s or, to the point, a soccer player’s performance. To observe, then, is to dance. Or to dribble, kick, or score a goal.
This finely facilitated perception of human movement is behind our ability to read body language and to readily express our own. It’s social intelligence, or a capacity to navigate our social world that allows us to figure out “where others are coming from” (are they angry or happy?), “where they are going” (are they coming to yell at me or to ask for help?) or what their next play is going to be (pass or dribble), so we know how to react accordingly.
But whether you call this social intelligence, or a mental mirroring of others, it also happens to be our ability to empathize because it uses the same mental rehearsal of the motions of others to allow us to…you guessed it…put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. Some of us fail miserably, while others can truly “feel your pain.”
If empathy is the great imitator and lubricant of social life it naturally plays a role in dancing. So when someone says, I can’t dance, you can be sure to catch this introvert stiffly jerking about on the dance floor. I know you’ve seen them and, if you’re half empathetic, you feel their pain to the point of cringing with embarrassment. Am I right?
But when someone says, “I’ve got rhythm,” they will no doubt have the graceful social movements of an extrovert that translate well on the dance floor. It’s why Bill Clinton can “cut a rug.” And Hillary can’t.
This is the Brazilians. It’s not for nothing that an American Airlines ad said Brazilians are the warmest people in all of Latin America. Like a litter of puppies physically entangled with one another, Brazilians can never seem to let go. Goodbyes last forever with a thousand kisses. Even in emails. And talking to strangers? Well, there aren’t any. When I buy a pair of shoes in Brazil, I don’t just acquire footwear but some new good girlfriends who swoon over me with heart and, um, sole as they rang up my purchase.
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