How brains synchronize during cooperative tasks

February 19, 2023

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How brains synchronize during cooperative tasks

Every organization we work with wants its employees to collaborate better. Yet most of them are organized in such a way to prevent the outcome they seek. To understand how collaboration happens—or doesn’t—it’s important to look at how the human brain actually works.

The neural design specs of collaboration.

Humans are social creatures. But what leads to them being this way? To fully understand how the brain gives rise to social behaviors, we need to investigate it during social encounters. Moreover, we need to analyze not only the internal operations of one brain during social activities but also the dynamic interplay between multiple brains engaged in the same activity. This emerging research field is referred to as “second-person neuroscience” and employs hyperscanning (the simultaneous recording of the activity of multiple brains) as the signature technique.

Hyperscanning studies employ natural and free settings for the shared tasks, allowing for nonstructured communication and creative objectives. While this produces more interesting results, a greater effort is needed to extract specific social behaviors from the video footages and link them to particular brain synchronization patterns. In turn, this limits analysis to short-term social interactions, which represent a tiny subset of possible human social behaviors.

Now, a research team has worked out an elegant solution to this problem. In their paper published in Neurophotonics, the team presented a novel approach in which they used computer vision techniques to automatically extract social behaviors (or “events”) during a natural two-participant experimental task. Next, they used an event-related generalized linear model to determine which social behaviors could be linked to particular types of neuronal synchrony, both between brains and within each participant’s brain.

Each pair of participants (39 pairs in total) engaged in a natural, cooperative, and creative task: the design and furnishing of a digital room in a computer game. They were allowed to communicate freely to create a room that satisfied both. The participants also completed the same task alone as the researchers sought to compare between-brain synchronizations (BBSs) and within-brain synchronizations (WBSs) during the individual and cooperative tasks. The social behavior that the team focused on during the tasks was eye gaze, that is, whether the participants directed their gaze at the other’s face.

One of the most intriguing findings of the study was that, during cooperative play, there was a strong BBS among the superior and middle temporal regions (regions concerned with eye-contact) and specific parts of the prefrontal cortex in the right hemisphere (the area that controls creativity, artistic skills, noticing patterns and finding solutions), but little WBS in comparison. Moreover, the BBS synchronization was strongest when one of the participants raised their gaze to look at the other. Interestingly, the situation reversed during individual play, showing increased WBS within the same regions.

These results agree with the idea that our brains work as a “two-in-one system” during certain social interactions.

What the researchers say: “Neuron populations within one brain were activated simultaneously with similar neuron populations in the other brain when the participants cooperated to complete the task, as if the two brains functioned together as a single system for creative problem-solving,” the lead author explains. “These phenomena are consistent with the notion of a ‘we-mode,’ in which interacting agents share their minds in a collective fashion and facilitate interaction by accelerating access to the other’s cognition.”

So, what? Perhaps the most important study of the year so far. It explains why high performing teams are so successful. It is interesting that the task the researchers set the teams was interesting, fun and allowed for creativity.

Many studies have shown that human brains work better in collaboration and that they work at their peak when the activity they’re working on is fun. I suspect the dopamine reward system was mutually engaged during the game process. Dopamine is known to make the brain work faster, smarter and more creatively.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

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