Saturday, March 28, 2009

Like music to my brain

According to a new study, you don’t need to be a psychic mind reader to connect with someone else through your brain. All you need is a little jazz.

In everyday life, we often have to coordinate our actions with others. Playing team sports, playing music instruments or singing in a group, dancing, even walking with someone side by side all require that we pay attention to what other people are doing and coordinate together (of course, if I’m dancing, I am generally unable to pay attention to anything but myself, so don’t bank on it). What’s more, coordinating with other people doesn’t only happen when we’re moving. Bonding socially, like when you really hit if off with your speed date and you gaze lovingly in each other’s eyes, also requires coordinated activity.

So what allows us to connect with other people’s minds to sync up with them while dancing or dating? Well, the mechanism for coordinating activities needs to meet two constraints. First, it has to be fast. If you’re trying to dance with me, you only have a split second to react before I stomp your toes mercilessly. Second, it needs to integrate sensory information (where is my foot?), motor activity (removing foot from stomping zone) and brain activity. The best candidate to meet these constraints may be brain oscillations. The cells in your brain (neurons) communicate through electrical signals, and these can be measured using a technique called electroencephalography (EEG). The oscillations are fast, and they bind information in your brain that is related, but not necessarily in the same area. On top of that, we know that these brain oscillations are involved in perception and motor activity. A team of researchers from Germany and Austria set out to examine what happens to those brain waves when we coordinate with others.

In the study, the researchers investigate if two guitarists playing jazz together will have synchronized brain waves. They measure EEG frequency and synchrony during the preparatory period (when the two guitarists are getting ready to start and are listening to a metronome giving them the beat), when they start playing the piece, later during the piece, and after the piece. And, because I’m sure you’re dying to know, the music they played was a jazz-fusion piece composed by Alexander Buck.

The results show that the brains of the guitarists exhibit synchronized brain waves during the preparatory period, at play onset, during the piece, but not at the end when the show is over. The highest level of synchronization is at the moment just when they start playing together.

There are a few limitations to this study. The sample size is small, only 8 pairs of guitarists (though all of them showed synchronization). The other limitation is that both guitarists in a given pair get the same sensory information (they hear the same metronome, are in the same room, etc) and they make the same motor movements (as they are playing the same piece), so it could just be that their brains react in a similar way. But, given the timing and the frequencies of the brain wave synchronization, the authors make a good case for this synchronization resulting from interactions between the two guitarists and not just similarities in the sensory input and motor output.

That our brain waves sync up with others is a pretty neat finding and could explain our ability to coordinate with others when we are engaging in many different activities. This may also have implications for interpersonal relations, such as mother and child bonding. To dig a bit deeper, I wish the researchers had done the same experiment on two people playing Guitar Hero. Would the brain waves synchronize if the guitarists are paying attention to a cue from the screen instead of each other? What do you think? What implications does this finding have for our increasingly virtual modes of communication and interaction?

A person wearing electrodes for EEG

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