At every nightclub, at every middle school dance, at every wedding, there's always one person who looks less like they're dancing to the beat and more like they're waiting for the bathroom. For these lonely individuals, even following the Macarena can feel like the finals on So You Think You Can Dance.
But there may be hope for these rhythm-less wallflowers. Researchers at McGill University in Montreal have discovered that so-called "beat deafness" is more than just a matter of "tappah-tappah-tappah."
Although the researchers describe beat-deafness as "very rare" — a questionable verdict if you've ever been to a show choir competition — they have discovered that a lack of rhythm is more than just differences in body movements, and that it is actually rooted in how people synchronize with sound.
"We examined beat tracking, the ability to find a regular pulse and move with it, in individuals who complained of difficulty following a beat in everyday activities like listening to music and dancing," said McGill psychology professor Caroline Palmer in a university press release.
In the study, both beat-deaf and non-beat-deaf individuals were asked to tap their feet evenly without any sound, a feat both groups accomplished with little difficulty. Once sound was added, however, beat-deaf members of the study went from Fred Astaire to Kate Gosselin on Dancing with the Stars.
"Most people had no problem, but the beat-deaf individuals were quite variable in their tapping — sometimes missing the beat by a large amount," said Palmer. "The most difficult test was to tap along with a metronome that suddenly became faster or slower. The non-beat-deaf were able to adapt to the changes within a few beats, but interestingly, the beat-deaf individuals were not able to synchronize."
Palmer concluded from the study that beat-deafness is a problem with how internal biological rhythms change to react to external cues. "While most people can adapt their rhythms in response to an external cue, some people are less able to do that," says Palmer. "We tested what makes beat-deaf individuals different, by seeing how people whose biological rhythms may not respond normally to external cues adapt to an external beat."
This extends past an inability to bob your head to "Shake It Off." Internal rhythmic behaviors dictate actions as simple as moderating your walking speed to match that of a companion. The research has a potentially wide scope, with anthropological ramifications extending beyond beat-deafness to include general human ability to synchronize behaviors.
Most importantly for the rhythmically challenged, it's a scientific justification for closing your eyes, plugging in your ears and dancing like you just don't care.