MEETING OF THE MINDS

Being on the same wavelength isn’t just a figure of speech. It’s proven neuroscience.

You know when someone’s on your wavelength. Conversations go great. You get them, and they get you. It’s groovy. Now science is proving this concept’s more than metaphorical.

A study on brain-to-brain synchrony, published in Current Biology on April 27, examined the neuroscience of classroom interaction and found that shared attention—spurred by certain stimuli, like eye contact and face-to-face exchange—generated similar brain wave patterns in students. The research, led by psychologist Suzanne Dikker at New York University, indicates engaged groups are literally in sync on a brain-to-brain basis.

“The human brain has evolved for group living, yet we know so little about how it supports dynamic group interactions,” the study notes. Real-world social exchanges are a mystery and much previous research has been limited to artificial environments and simple tests. This effort, however, measured brainwave activity during face-to-face interaction in a natural rather than constructed environment, investigating social dynamics across time.

Classrooms make a particularly good place for neuro-scientific exploration because they’re lively—with lots of actors and factors at play—but also semi-controlled environments with limited influences and all activities led by a single teacher. “This allowed us to measure brain activity and behavior in a systematic fashion over the course of a full semester as students engaged,” the researchers explain.

The brainwaves of 12 teenage students’ brainwaves were recorded during 11 different classes throughout the semester; each session was 50 minutes long. The students followed live lectures, watched instructional videos, and participated in group discussions. Researchers tracked students’ brainwaves throughout using portable electroencephalogram (EEG) systems.

The study tested the hypothesis that group members think similarly, and that the more engaged they are, the more similarly the think—and that this could be seen in shared brainwave patterns. The researchers believed that engagement predicts, and possibly underpins, classroom learning specifically and group dynamics generally. Indeed, they found that when students were more engaged in a teaching style—listening to a lecture versus watching a video, say—they were also more likely to show similar brainwaves.

That brainwave synchronicity seems to be generated from a number of small, individual interactions. Particular types of exchanges seemed to especially influence the meeting of the minds in the study, say the researchers. For example, eye contact was linked to shared intentions, which “sets up a scaffold” for social cognition and more engagement. These individual interactions seemed to lead to a shared sense of purpose across the group—which manifested in specific brainwave patterns, likewise shared across the group.

The researchers believe their work with teens in the classroom—which wasn’t easy given the students’ energy levels and EEGs attached to their boisterous young brains—shows it is possible to investigate the neuroscience of group interactions under “ecologically natural circumstances.” They hope it leads to more exploration of brainwaves out in the wilderness that is civilization.

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