Neural Synchronization


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Have you ever felt as though you were entirely in sync with a friend or coworker in a way that seemed as if the two of you were on the same brain wavelength? Well neuroscientists are discovering that the idea of being on the same wavelength is more than just a figure of speech. The interbrain synchrony findings in the research field of social neuroscience may seem like magic even to neuroscientists, but they have begun to find scientific evidence to back the phenomenon of how our brains begin to sync up during shared experiences.

When social interactions occur where people are thinking, feeling, and acting in response to others, patterns in their brain activity begin to align. When they collectively interact, it has been found that the timing and location of their brain activity begin to become more and more alike with one another. Furthermore, their neurons begin to fire at the same time in identical patterns. At the most basic level, our shared brain processing could be deduced to the fact we are experiencing the same stimuli and our auditory and visual brain regions create matching patterns as we hear or see the same thing. This would be a simple and logical conclusion to draw since two people are likely going to process the same stimuli similarly. However, the latest research suggests that interbrain synchrony can extend far beyond that.

These findings point to more than just the baseline auditory and visual stimuli when sharing experiences. When individuals are completing challenging tasks or attempting to make greater meaning of something, the activity seen in higher order brain regions are also appearing to respond similarly. Interbrain synchrony is bringing about a new richness to sociality as shared experiences tend to be more satisfying. Researchers suggest that this phenomenon is beneficial for society and may have even contributed to the evolution of our social behaviors and communities.

“Interbrain synchrony is bringing about a new richness to sociality as shared experiences tend to be more satisfying.”

As people experience an increase in neural alignment, this can bring about a greater level of enjoyment or result in better learning. For example, when students in a classroom are attentive towards their teacher, they can begin to experience interbrain synchrony with their teacher. The potential for students to have similarity in brain processing with their teacher may mean better learning. Couples and close friends display more interbrain synchrony than they do with acquaintances. We like to feel connected with those around us, so it is no wonder we tend to be closer with those we really click with.

“The potential for students to have similarity in brain processing with their teacher may mean better learning.”

Thalia Wheatly, a scientist at the Dartmouth University neuroscience department who is studying interbrain synchrony, explained, “When we’re talking to each other, we kind of create a single “überbrain” that isn’t reducible to the sum of its parts… Like oxygen and hydrogen combine to make water, it creates something special that isn’t reducible to oxygen and hydrogen independently.” Wheatley is currently conducting a study in hopes of finding that “something special”. In her research, the brain waves between a pair of participants are closely compared while they tell stories, in hopes of identifying coherence. These correlations would not be identified on a linguistic level, and instead are intended to be looking on a deeper level.

Previous studies in bats done by neuroscientists have set the foundation for Wheatly’s groundbreaking experiment. In 2019, Michael Yartsev, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and postdoctoral researcher, Wujie Zhang, were the frontrunners in recognizing that bat brains synchronize in the same way as our human brains. Their revolutionary study demonstrated that interbrain synchrony is a strong indicator of social connection and is only apparent when the bats are with one another. These brain patterns the researchers saw in the bats were so identical that they could hardly believe it, yet the data was so powerful that it reassured the scientists they were looking at a very real experience.

Yartsev and Zhang attempted to repeat the trial by letting the bats fly freely in different identical closed environments, controlling for stimuli, but the correlations disappeared. Thus, pointing to the conclusion that the synchrony is based on social connection, extending further than just identical environments, and perceiving the same stimuli. They concluded interbrain synchrony helps us to understand our environment, better communicate, and increase our ability to learn information through shared cognitive processing.

“Thus, pointing to the conclusion that the synchrony is based on social connection, extending further than just identical environments, and perceiving the same stimuli.”

Weizhe Hong, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, and his colleagues were one of the first to look at interbrain synchrony with a greater amount of detail by observing the activity of specific neurons. They used mice to further explore the complexity of this and found that synchrony was appearing in pairs of interacting mice who are known to be a hierarchical species. In their research, they found that there was greater synchrony among the mice who were farther apart on the social standing ladder. These findings are similar to a 2015 study done in China that showed synchrony was higher in leaders and followers compared to the synchrony between followers.

While the bat and mouse studies were fundamentally different, the conclusions drawn from the two species were quite similar. Now, human studies are aiming to not just draw baseline conclusions between neural synchronization, but to go far beyond it. Researchers believe that some level of synchrony could be found even in circumstances when people understand the same stimuli very differently, just as long as they share the same deeper meaning. They are also hoping to better understand whether the pair’s amount of enjoyment from the collaborative experience is contributing to the level of synchrony.

Interbrain synchrony can help us to better understand our relationships with each other and become more socially advanced. While multiple studies have been done to demonstrate the synchrony that we collectively experience, more research is needed to understand the deeper levels of alignment we could be experiencing.

Amanda Johnson Amanda is a recent graduate from the University of Southern California where she received her degree in Psychology. In addition to her university studies, she earned her Integrative Nutrition Health Coach certification from the Institute of Integrative Nutrition (IIN).

This article was reviewed and approved by Emeran Mayer, MD