Exploring the Dark Matter of Neuroscience: Interbrain Synchrony
What is interbrain synchrony, and how does it impact human connection?
At a recent conference, Montreal AI & Neuroscience (MAIN), I was introduced to an area of research that could further unlock how the human brain functions in social situations. This area of research refers to the dark matter of neuroscience in social interaction.
The field is now expanding to couple with Artificial Intelligence as Social Neuro-AI:
“Social Neuro-AI starts with computational social neuroscience, and we look at how we can use social neuroscience towards artificial intelligence.” — Dr Guillaume Dumas — From Social Physiology to Social Neuro-AI, MAIN-2020
Let’s dive in, shall we?
I recently came across a paper written by Amir Djalovski, Guillaume Dumas, Sivan Kinrich, and Ruth Feldman on Human Attachment and Interbrain Synchrony (2020). Before I share with you my takeaways, we need to set the context. According to the scientific work of Dunbar (2014) and Hari and Parkko (2015):
Through evolution, humans have undergone an expansion that allows human brains to synchronize with each other when performing complex social tasks.
When does neural synchrony develop, you might wonder? According to the work of Feldman (2017), it develops from the parent-infant bond. From infancy, our brains start to synchronize with others, and this continues as we age and begin to engage in more complex, less familiar social interactions.
Jumping back to the work of Djalvoski et al., this study focuses on examining how the brains of male-female pairs (long-term couples, best friends, and strangers) synchronize during two important social tasks.
- Motor Coordination (Drawing an object together on an Etch-A-Sketch)
- Empathy Giving (Each person sharing a distressing event) * Let's focus on this one. ⭐️
Experimenters examined both:
- Behavioural synchrony (Physical coordination that occurs when synchronizing one’s behaviour with another 🤝)
- Neural synchrony (Synchronizing of their brain waves 📈)
Amongst the many findings in this study, it was observed that:
In the Empathy Giving task, couples showed the highest behavioural synchrony with the lowest neural synchrony, while strangers exhibited the opposite pattern.
This is interesting. You might have intuitively thought “wouldn’t the synchrony of brain waves between couples be higher during an empathy-giving situation?” Let’s unpack why this wasn’t the case here. It relates to a concept called complementarity:
Complementarity, a pattern found in interactions with attachement partners beginning in adolescence.
It is characterized by an increase (⬆️) in behavioural synchrony and a decrease (⬇️) in neural synchrony.
In infancy, an opposite pattern called linkage is observed. Characterized by an increase (⬆️) in behavioural synchrony and an increase (⬆️) in physiological (including the 🧠) synchrony.
Among couples, a long-term attachment bond is already formed. In this study, it’s suggested that the goal, evolutionarily speaking, is to strengthen the relationship and foster anabolism: the process by which the brain’s neural activity & vigilance decreases to promote its rest, repair and growth (Schulkin and Sterling, 2019).
Wow — during empathy giving in long-term attachment bonds (example: couples 👫👬👭), we don’t experience a lack of neural (🧠) synchrony because of a lack of connection to the other person — we experience it because we are in fact, so deeply connected, that this neural synchrony is not required. Our physiology can settle into an anabolic state preparing for rest, repair and growth at even the most microscopic, cellular level.
Among strangers, a bond is not yet formed. Strangers can turn into friends, foes, or even mates. Here, a high level of energy is invested to analyze these unfamiliar patterns of the other person, and although experiencing empathy in this situation is possible, it requires this high level of 🧠 to 🧠 synchrony.
Personally, I’m in awe of the power of human connection and how our physiology mirrors the very attachments we hold so close to our hearts. The relaxation and letting down of our guard that is felt in the embrace of a loved one’s arms can feel like a chance to “recover” after a long day or stressful situation because it is. This is not merely a feeling — it’s a physiological reaction to this engagement with our partner. In a separate study, brain-brain synchrony was demonstrated during hand-holding and linked to pain reduction. Yes, you read that right — when you reach out for a loved one’s hand during a painful procedure, the reason it helps can be linked to your two brains interacting.
Our bodies mirror our feelings through physiology, as demonstrated by these examples. When engaging in empathy or social touch (and perhaps other social interactions) with our loved ones, our bodies are physically able to recover and reset.
There is actually a physiological basis behind the solace we find in social interactions with our long-term attachment partners.
I’m left with a newfound appreciation for the social interactions in my everyday life. With the events of 2020 sending most of us into some form of isolation at one point or another, we cannot disregard its effects on the psyche and overall well-being. Our social norms have changed for the foreseeable future, and I’m now in keen observation of how myself and others have adapted to these changes. I’m also left with questions: What are the differences between empathy given in a face-to-face interaction vs. a Zoom call? What are the implications of lack of social touch?
Finally, I lean into gratitude for the social connections in my life that have not only survived but thrived in this unprecedented year.
I’m curious to hear your takeaways. How does this change the way you think about social interactions? Who comes to mind when you think about being able to truly rest & reset? Leave me a comment below or a private note; your engagement and feedback are always welcomed and honoured here.