Syncing Our Brains—to Each Other’s

Photo by Phillip Goldsberry via Unsplash



In the future, Svengoolie will command my complete attention. No more dozing and surfing. Not if I want a good marriage.

For my husband, tv is pure escape. Nothing relaxes him more than a Friday night pizza and two hours of a bad Fifties horror flick, the kind that was stuck together with bubblegum and could not scare a toddler. Ours are local, hosted by the aforesaid Svengoolie, who hurls rubber chickens and parodies the scripts in ways even more painful than the scripts themselves. When we are stuck at home and I have no better suggestion for entertainment, I endure—but like a kid on a car trip, I keep myself supplied with quiet games, email, mending, anything.

That is about to change. Now that researchers can measure brain activity for several people at once, they are learning all sorts of things about our relationships. Brains sync up, their flurries of activity and periods of rest aligning, when people are interacting or engaged in the same task. When we are paying unforced (note the adjective) attention, the same parts of our brains light up or connect at the same times. And this brain synchrony is stronger between romantic partners than between friends or strangers.

In the not-so-distant past, I would have been expected to adapt to my husband’s rhythms automatically, organizing time around his schedule, meals around his appetite, conversation around his moods. His hobbies would be my hobbies. Granted, when a woman was sufficiently strong-willed, her husband adapted to her rhythms. But these days, nobody adapts to anybody. We pursue our own interests, read our own sort of news, watch our own shows—on a laptop if need be. The only syncing is of our devices—which we need them to coordinate our separate schedules.

If life is a dance, and society was once a serene minuet, today we are slam dancing, eyes down, hips and shoulders colliding gracelessly. The inelegance is reason enough to add back a little harmony. If we slow the dance until our bodies move as one, we have to pay attention, and it becomes easier to sense what our partner is feeling and thinking.

At life’s start, we share a single heartbeat. We are connected to everything our mother feels and thinks. Now, especially when we love someone, our minds and bodies instinctively try to recapture a bit of that unity. We unconsciously mimic the physical gestures or posture of someone we like; we yawn when they do; we giggle just because they are laughing. Walking, we fall into step. Watching an emotionally intense play, we begin to breathe at the same rate. “We even socially synchronize our physiology,” writes Pascal Vrticka, a British lecturer in psychology, “through the alignment of our heartbeats and hormonal secretion.”

All this imitation is not a chimpanzee trick left over from prehistory. It is social behavior, our way to be congruent. Why bother? For the emotional connection—and its practical payoffs.

Children’s brains sync up with their parents’ brains when they play games or solve puzzles together. “The stronger the brain-to-brain synchrony,” Vrticka has found, “the more problems parents and children can solve.” What strengthens the synchrony, especially with mothers, is taking turns, giving kids more chances to engage and more freedom to contribute.

Mothers and children also sync up if they just talk to each other. The qualifier to all of this? The kids pull back and the synchrony ends when the mother is stressed. I suspect the same holds true for marriage. Which means I cannot even seethe in private when Svengoolie screens.

“We know almost nothing about how minds couple,” remarks neuroscientist Thalia Wheatley, adding that this is finally changing, thanks to “hyperscanning.” Without making anyone hold still, researchers can capture the activity in more than one person’s brain at a time. People can be interacting or engaged in a common task, and we can see how the give and take affects their consciousness.

“Social cognition is fundamentally different,” says psychiatrist and social neuroscientist Leonhard Schilbach, “when you’re directly engaged with another person,” not just observing their engagement with, say, a dumb movie. And psychologist Elizabeth Redcay found that the parts of the brain involved in “mentalizing”—thinking about the mental states of others—come to life when people are sharing attention, not just looking at something by themselves.

Sharing an experience also prompts us to look at each other now and then, which is also significant. Making eye contact is what prepares human beings to empathize. Even something as simple as an exchanged glance confirms that our behavior has an effect on the other person, something our social and rather sweet brain reads as a reward. And the more rewards we reap from shared activities, the more eager we are to share more.

Neuroscientist Uri Hasson has observed brains during storytelling sessions, as “the brain of the listener becomes similar to the brain of the speaker.” The more aligned their brains are, the better the listener understands the story. His cymbal-clashing conclusion? “Your brain as an individual is really determined by the brains you’re connected to.”

So is the quality of your conversation. If you are in sync, talking lets you create new ideas, venturing into territory you might not have explored alone. We tease about “sharing a brain,” being “wired the same way,” or “operating at the same frequency,” but in terms of brain science, all this is accurate. When people are cooperating, millions of neurons are firing at the same frequency, aligning, making it easier for information to be transferred. The minute we disengage, bored or disenchanted, the synchrony falls apart and the connection dissolves. Parallel play, competition, doing similar tasks separately, me slumped next to Andrew on the loveseat but reading my email—none of that links our brains. None of that makes us feel engagement, affinity, or empathy.

“When we become aware that ‘we’ are sharing a moment with someone else, it is no longer necessarily the case that we are fundamentally separated by our distinct heads,” writes neuroscientist Tom Froese. “We could really be two individuals sharing in one and the same unfolding experience.” Consciousness might not be a first-person phenomenon, after all. It could emerge from the interactions of multiple brains, not one in isolation. The whole is greater than the separate parts.

Which was, after all, the point of marriage.

Next Saturday night, Svengoolie will host Blood of Dracula, a 1957 black-and-white horror film that has nothing to do with Dracula and comes nowhere close to its apparent inspiration, I Was a Teenage Werewolf.  The movie does, however, offer an evil chemistry teacher, impressively wild bat makeup, and a musical number titled ‘Puppy Love.’”

No puppy ever worked this hard.



Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.