Have you ever been on a team that operated like a well-oiled machine? Are you and your coworkers consistently on the same page? New research into the way the brain works in group settings suggests your brain waves might actually be synced up with those of the people around you—if you like them, that is.
The research showed that the extent to which high school classmates’ brain waves synced up was correlated to how much they liked each other and the class they were taking together. Scientists studied the students’ brain waves, and that of their teacher, during their biology class for an entire semester.
“How well our brainwaves sync up with those of another person appears to be a good predictor of how well we get along and how engaged we are,” said lead study author Suzanne Dikker, a psychology researcher at New York University and Utrecht University in the Netherlands, to NYU.
The results suggest that having a positive group experience is linked to how mentally synced up we are with others. In the study, the more a student’s brain waves mirrored those of others in the classroom, the more likely that student was to give the course a good rating, the researchers found. (Students who reported that group activities were important to them were even more synced up with their classmates.) And the more synced up a student was with other kids in the class, the more likely they were to give their instructor’s teaching style a good rating.
Brain wave synchrony also correlates with engagement, Dikker said to Rewire.
“When you’re listening to me your brain is quite literally hanging on every word; (your brain waves are) following the contours of my speech,” she said. The more you’re paying attention to what’s being said, by a boss or a coworker or a teacher, for example, the more your brain waves will “lock to (the) speech contour.”
And “if you’re more engaged (in what’s going on), your brain waves are going to be more similar to the people who are in the same environment,” she said.
Why do our brain waves sync up? There are a number of things that could be behind the phenomenon, the researchers wrote in the study, but they believe it might be due to “joint attention”—shared focus of more than one person on a single thing.
“This ties directly to behavioral evidence showing that people physically (and typically subconsciously) entrain to each other when engaging in tasks that require joint attention,” they wrote.
On an individual level, connecting with people on your team outside of group activities is also important, the researchers found. In the study, pairs of students who said they felt close to each other were more synced up during class, but only if they had interacted face-to-face immediately before class.
That suggests that having face-to-face interaction before a shared experience can get us better synced with the people we’re sharing the experience with, whether we’re playing a sport or collaborating at work.
Researchers are next looking at how brain synchrony factors into team dynamics, Dikker said. Though it’s too early to give hard-and-fast advice on the topic, she said, “you can take (the findings of the classroom study) to mean that it is actually important to have these moments of contact before you engage in a task that you’re supposed to be solving jointly.”
She pointed out that sports teams huddle up before a game and coworkers often debrief daily “right before everyone goes their own way and does things.”
“Finding this moment of connection before the task actually allows you to synchronize better while you perform that task,” Dikker said.
The researchers’ upcoming work will delve into what makes a successful team—”it’s not so straightforward,” she said—and if brain synchrony plays a role in that.
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Katie Moritz is Rewire’s web editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz and on Instagram @yepilikeit.