Brainwaves synchronize during online games when players aren't in the same room

The study demonstrated that empathy and cooperation synchronizes minds.
Stephen Vicinanza
Two synchronized minds.
Two synchronized minds.

Maxiphoto/iStock 

  • Study results show inter-brain synchronization during online gaming.
  • If there is empathy and cooperation, inter-brain synchronization is activated.
  • The subjects were tested by placing them in two separate soundproof rooms.

Researchers at the University of Helsinki have demonstrated that the brains of participants synchronize while playing online games, even when the participants are not physically present in the same room.

Inter-brain synchronization happens when two people who are interacting socially become synced in certain emotional and physiological centers in the brain. Such synchronization can produce better performance, problem-solving, and communication.

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Many new types of social interactions are occurring online, especially since the COVID pandemic gave everyone a chance to be online more. This trend seems to be holding firm, as more people work from remote locations and investments in social technology grow.

In previous research, it was shown that brains activate in a similar and simultaneous way during social interactions. In the research, these interactions were observed during face-to-face contact, and inter-brain neural synchronization was associated with empathy and cooperation. However, the role of inter-brain neural synchronization during online interactions was unknown.

At least, that was true, until a study at the University of Helsinki that investigated brainwave synchronization while pairs of participants played a game where they controlled a racing car at the same time. Subjects were separated into two soundproof rooms, while researchers investigated the connection between synchronization, interaction, and performance in the game.

The results showed that inter-brain synchronization does happen during cooperative online gaming. The increased synchrony occurs in the alpha and gamma frequency bands of the EEG, and is related to better performance overall. The connection between performance and gamma synchronization was observed in a continuous stream over time.

EEGs are a series of electronic readings that are measured on a machine in bands. They are much like the tracings in an EKG, just more of them. There are 11 frequency bands on an EEG readout, two of which are the Alpha and Gamma bands, which denote attention. Cooperation is shown in the Gamma, while alpha is negative attention, or the resulting negative reactions.

In this study, the more time spent in the Gamma Band, where both readouts were synchronized, the more performance and cooperation were in play. There must be a length of time reached, the longer, the better, where both EEGs in Gamma were showing about the same readings or synchronization.

Online interaction can improve

Many teachers, parents, and legislators are concerned about how much screen time people are exposed to, especially children.

Valtteri Wickström, who led the research at the University of Helsinki, had a chance to speak with Interesting Engineering on this groundbreaking work. He said in a statement, “We are able to show inter-brain phase synchronization can occur without the presence of the other person. This opens up the possibility to investigate the role of this social brain mechanism in online transactions.”

According to Wickström, measurements of physiological synchronization and cooperative performance can potentially help to evaluate social interaction, at least as far as the quality of that interaction. A positive direction can be assigned to this evaluation if it is discovered which aspects of the interface promote understanding and connectedness, rather than conflict.

In a previous study on inter-brain coupling during face-to-face interactions, data was collected on whether, in an informal setting, participants' brains synchronized during the interaction. In 10-minute, face-to-face interactions conducted with thousands of pairs of museum and festival goers, over a 5-year period, a correlation between empathy, social closeness, engagement, and social behavior (joint eye contact and actions) was demonstrated. This correlation consistently predicted the extent to which brain activity was synchronized.

What this means is that positive interactions produce consistent and continuous inter-brain synchronization. The study was meant to bring about a careful examination of people's shared participation in face-to-face interactions. This led to a hypothesis that perhaps the brains of participants can become synchronized from having a shared task online, even when a pair of participants are not present in the same room.

Inter-Brain Synchronization in participants not in the same room.

The study was undertaken by a team at the University of Helsinki and had some positive results. On the issue of online conflict, it was demonstrated that if there is empathy and cooperation, inter-brain synchronization is activated.

Wickström believed that “If we can build interactive digital experiences, which activate fundamental mechanisms of empathy, it can lead to better social relationships, well-being, and productivity online.”

In the study, participants were physically isolated and could only communicate through online interactions controlled entirely by button presses. Momentary performance was linked to synchronization on the gamma band frequency in the EEG, while average performance was linked to the alpha band synchronization.

These novel results demonstrated the continuous measurement of collaborative performance and inter-brain synchrony.

Looking toward the future

When IE contacted Dr. Wickström, we found him working on the next phases of the study. IE wanted to explore with him the idea that people in close relationships might have an inter-brain synchronization when not present in the same room, but in digital communication with each other. Wickström recommended the study on inter-brain synchronization that was found in face-to-face social situations. He also recommended the study in Nature on face-to-face interaction with inter-brain synchronization.

The Helsinki study is the first of its kind in the online spectrum and Wickström was looking forward to continuing the work, as well as additional studies in the neuropsychology fields.

In answer to a question on the future of this work, he replied, “I think our study opens up possibilities to investigate whether or not a similar effect occurs in computer-mediated communication. Computer-mediated communication also offers additional possibilities for investigating other aspects of closeness and trust, since the interlocutor is not directly perceivable to the participant, and as such an experiment could lead the participant to believe that they are interacting with someone else than they actually are.”

The closeness of subjects opened the door to further study, and this is what Wickström was referring to as he spoke more in-depth on the topic of relationship in inter-brain synchronization.

“I would expect, however, that some tasks which depend more on social-emotional processing would be more fruitful for investigating social processing, compared to the cooperative car racing game in our study, which was developed for measuring performance.”

Further study in the areas of online interactions

IE was curious to know what Dr. Wickström felt would be the future of this study and where further study might lead, and this was a point that Wickström felt he would like to expand on.

IE asked the professor, “Where do you see this leading, in terms of your further study in this area?”

Wickström was especially forthcoming when he replied “I think this study can lead to more research into the role and effects of inter-brain synchronization in the online environment. Using these types of measurements to evaluate and iteratively develop social applications to promote synchronization, we might be able to bring more feelings of connectedness to computer-mediated communication.”

To add to this positive outlook on online social interactions, and indeed, any interaction in a computer-mediated scenario, he added “ Such applications could then be used in communication and collaboration, and as an icebreaker and team building exercises especially for remote work, as well as to improve the socially relevant information on online collaboration platforms.”

There appears from this work to be many avenues to understanding how exactly the brain processes human interactions. Certainly, it appears that such operations as inter-brain synchronization can now be quantified, and this may offer a means to facilitate better communication, both face-to-face and in online interactions.