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Mindful : August 2018
and administered mildly painful heat on each woman’s arm. As her partner offered comfort and sympathy, the researchers measured brain activity in each partner. Simply being in each other’s presence caused their brain waves to sync, as measured by EEG, particularly in wavelengths called the alpha–mu band. These brain waves are a mark of focused attention. Each couple was in sync, mirroring one another neurologically in terms of what they were focusing on—her pain, his efforts to comfort her (maybe second thoughts about volunteering for scientific experiments). When the man and woman held hands while she experienced the mild burn, synchrony, or what scientists call “brain-to-brain coupling,” reached its zenith. Seeing someone you love suffer is (hopefully) an unusual experience, but neural synchrony occurs in mundane situations as well. In a 2018 study, 42 volunteers watched short video clips (ranging from America’s Funniest Home Videos to an astronaut discussing seeing Earth from space, journalists debating a Barack Obama speech, and a homemade wedding film) while scientists measured their brain activity with fMRI. The scientists had previously mapped everyone’s social network, noting who was whose friend, who was a friend of a friend, who was a friend twice removed, and so forth. Brain activity while viewing the clips was “exceptionally similar among friends,” said psy- chologist Thalia Wheatley of Dartmouth College, who led the study and is a leading researcher. “But that similarity decreases with increasing distance in the social network.” In other words, friends were most similar in their patterns of neural activity, followed by friends of friends, and then friends of friends of friends. Those neural patterns, Wheatley said, suggest that “we are exceptionally similar to our friends in how we perceive and respond to the world around us. You click more with friends than with non-friends, which fits with our intuition that we resonate with some people more than others. There seem to be neurobiological reasons for that.” The brain regions with the most similar activ- ity among friends included subcortical areas such as the nucleus accumbens and the amygdala, which are involved in motivation and processing emotions. There was also remarkable similar- ity in areas involved in deciding what to pay attention to, and regions in the inferior parietal lobe that have been linked to discerning others’ mental states, processing the narrative content of stories, and generally making sense of the world. Wheatley calls it neural homophily (the idea that like befriends like). Responding to the world in a similar way, as measured by brain activity, underlies the phenomenon of click- ing: It’s why you and that stranger at a party or assigned roommate laugh at the same things, want to chat endlessly about the same topic, and see the logic in the same argument. If two people interpret and respond to the world in similar ways, they’re easily able to predict one another’s thoughts and actions, Wheatley said. This increased predictability makes it easier to interact and communicate, which makes conver- sations and shared experiences more enjoyable. It also makes friendships more likely. But homophily also describes how birds of a feather flock together, where the “feathers” are things like age, ethnicity, and education level: People tend to become friends with those of the same demographic characteristics. That raises the question of whether demographic traits cause particular neural patterns. If so, then similar brain-activity patterns in friends would simply be the result of people with similar education levels, ethnicities, and other traits—perhaps including ideological beliefs, recreational interests, and cultural preferences—gravitating toward one another. In other words, maybe those traits made people friends, and the neural activity was sec- ondary, a mere bystander to the actual cause. The scientists knew they had to settle that, and they think they did. Wheatley and her colleagues used standard statistical techniques to measure whether neural patterns were a so-called independent variable, not a mere The complex things we do together—playing soccer, architecture, creating the internet, not to mention simply getting along—require us to quickly coordinate our actions. According to a paper in Trends in Cognitive Sci- ence in 2012 by Uri Hasson and colleagues, “Despite the central role of other individ- uals in shaping our minds, most cognitive studies focus DEFINITIONS | Brain-to-Brain Coupling on processes that occur within a single individual.” They called for a shift “from a single-brain to a multi-brain frame of reference.” They argued that we transmit signals that allow the neural processes in one brain to couple to those in another, creating a social network that leads to “complex joint behaviors that could not have emerged in isolation.” OUR NEURAL PAT- TERNS SUGGEST THAT WE ARE EXCEPTIONALLY SIMILAR TO OUR FRIENDS IN HOW WE PERCEIVE AND RESPOND TO THE WORLD AROUND US. brain science 34 mindful August 2018