The Canada Foundation for Innovation has awarded a grant to Prof Janeen Loehr of the University of Saskatchewan for establishing up an EEG lab, recording the brain activity of participants carrying out co-operative, or synchronised, tasks.People carry out countless synchronised tasks each day, from holding a conversation to walking in stride with someone to playing music together.
All of these require precise timing of actions and a certain amount of mind-reading to anticipate what another person is going to do, in order to be successful.
“Even if you think about exchanging coffee with the cashier, the frequency with which we don’t drop the coffee all over the floor, it’s actually pretty remarkable,” says Loehr.
It’s this kind of mind-reading that Loehr is investigating. Currently, her research concentrates on musicians: how they keep in time with each other and how they adapt to each other’s playing. If, as she hypothesises, this co-ordination is underpinned by being literally on the same wavelength as someone – that is, sharing patterns of brain activity – this may have implications beyond music to other kinds of interpersonal interactions.
“Any time you have problems relating interpersonally, you could imagine that that might have something to do with problems of synchronising your brain activity with other people,” she explains.
Understanding better how people are able to achieve synchrony may help people who struggle to relate to others, such as those with social anxiety or autism, for example.
To fully investigate what happens when people are in sync, the grant allows Loehr to set up a hyperscanning lab – simultaneously scanning two (or more) participants’ brain activity while they interact with each other.
Engaging in synchronised tasks is known to make people feel more bonded with each other, so one possible outcome of the research is in informing therapists’ treatment of clients with anxiety or depression: it may be that performing a simple, synchronised physical task – such as tapping fingers in time – can promote a closer therapeutic relationship.