Something special happens when we gather in crowds. Look no further than the emotions aroused in an audience at a theatre, stadium, or political meeting. People who, as individuals, might be shy or retiring, in groups, can become part of a powerful mass that is greater than the sum of the parts. This new power can have a very emotional component which in some instances exhilarates, in others numbs, or even terrifies. What is going on?
For me, there is little more exhilarating, even empowering, than when, at the sight of a goal, 10, 000 of us stand up, raise our arms, clench our fists, and cheer in unison. Then, with one voice, we (the crowd) chant ‘our’ song. Here is sheer shared joy expressed in some physical form. Although I will not know anyone else in the crowd, save the one or two who came with me, the feeling of oneness is overpowering. Moreover, possibly because I am doing things I never normally do, it is also somehow liberating. In these circumstances, not sharing in such a celebration, as one might do by remaining seated or staying silent, would be unthinkable and in practical terms almost impossible.
How different are the actions and sentiments of the thousands of supporters of the opposition. For them the goal brings silence, stillness and studied sedation. They are, as a group, stunned and miserable.
In such crowds, partisan animosity can arise and become ugly and frightening. But whatever happens here it is only game. For a reminder of real crowd ugliness and terror, imagine what it was like for jews witnessing Nazi rallies in the 1930s.
For many, the football scenario has an altogether primitive, almost animal, quality. But a similar sense of oneness can occur at ‘intellectual’ gatherings. At a recent meeting to launch a group lobbying for a change in the law in favour of assisted dying [Help to allow terminally ill patients to die, BMJ Blogs, 20th October 2010] some sixty of us listened attentively to lectures and discussion on a very serious issue with some unquestionably gloomy undertones. However during the meeting there was a palpable feeling of oneness, even excitement, amongst those gathered, and the feeling was confirmed by participants when chatting informally over coffee or later at lunch. Something special, and for me at least, unforgettable, had happened that bound us. The feeling was part of the chemistry of being there with that group. The same talks heard on the radio, watched on a video, or read in a book, just would not have affected me in the same way, nor engendered the same esprit de corps. And, as with football, there was more in the audience than the sum of the parts.
It would be tempting to believe that it was the intellectual content of the launch that linked us all, but a second recent experience suggests that there was almost certainly another element. The event was an hour-long reading in France of poems by Jacques Prévert. The performers were well known to me (one was my former French teacher) and the presentations felt very professional. But poetry is language at its most sophisticated, and despite my five years of French I understood next to nothing. It was a wet Sunday afternoon and we were in a village hall in a seaside fishing community. To my eye (and I had time to look as my mind wandered!) the audience of over 200, was spellbound – and I was too. Somehow, for me, just being there with the shared intensity and respect was special, and that feeling of something special was echoed in discussion when the reading ended. Although I had little understanding of the ideas the poems had expressed, simply sitting in that group was empowering. Yet again, the power of crowd had waved its wand, and I will be going back for more.
There can be no denying crowd power, but what actually is a crowd? Based on the adage ‘two’s company, three’s a crowd’, I will go for three or more. And what is it that makes some crowds gel? Here, at the launch and the poetry reading, the process happened in front of me and took me by surprise. But what senses we used, or messages we detected, that allowed us to bind remain a mystery. At the football match the gelling had already been done and I simply became part of an established crowd, but I recognised the oneness, approved, and joined in with gusto. Either way, the ability of human beings to recognise such oneness is clearly a skill well honed, and a capacity which will have been evolved to serve some important purpose. It could be that the purpose might simply be to provide feelings of empowerment, liberation, and protection (implicit in oneness).