Stringing along - duets synchronise brain activity

Guitarists duet
It seems that if we do something together, our brains swing together, making up highly functioning networks of between-brain functional connectivity that fills the gap between two interaction partners…
Johanna Sänger
A study which has appeared today in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience has discovered synchronous brain oscillations in duetting musicians, indicating a direct neural basis for interpersonally coordinated actions which could apply not only to activities such as sports, but also to communication more generally.

Johanna Sänger, Dr Viktor Müller and Professor Ulman Lindenberger from the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin recorded guitarists playing – in pairs – different voices of the same musical sequence. This is where the research diverges from a previous study which had found synchronous brain activity between musicians performing the same piece of music.

The participants – 24 guitarists in 12 duets – were asked to play a modified passage from Christian Gottlieb Scheidler’s ‘Sonata in G Major’ a total of 60 times. As well as the network properties ordinarily observed between brain regions in individuals coordinating their own actions, the researchers also detected synchronisation between the brain activity of duet partners. The electroencephalogram’s showed that these synchronicities were strongest when coordination was most important.

ScienceOmega.com had the opportunity to ask Johanna Sänger further questions about how the study came about and what the findings suggest about the networks in and between our brains which control interpersonal coordination…

What led your team to investigate this topic?
Interacting with others is a fundamental ingredient of our lives; the capability to adapt our behaviour to that of other individuals is what makes us social beings. Trying to build knowledge of the neural processes that potentially enable us to do this seems accordingly worthwhile. Making music is just one example of this function, and it is an interesting one not only in artistic terms, but also with regard to our model conception of interpersonal action coordination (IAC). This entails the notion that for IAC to succeed, one’s own and the partner’s actions need to be represented in an accordant time pattern, which becomes explicit in music-making. The fact that this expression sounds so good and is such a nice thing is the cherry on the cake.

Were you and your colleagues surprised by what you found?
I would say rather that we were pleased, since we pretty much found what we expected and what is plausible against the background of our theoretical notion of IAC.

Why was the experiment arranged so that the musicians in each pair had to play different voices?
We wanted to rule out both guitarists producing the same motor output as a possible explanation for the synchronisation effect. We wanted to show that it is not about exactly doing the same thing, but rather about coordinating eventually different actions that are nonetheless conditioned on each other in order to make the joint action succeed.

What did the study suggest about the synchronisation of brains and the network properties in use during musical duets?
We found that while playing in duets, networks of phase coherence in the delta and theta frequency bands emerge that encompass both brains. The functional connectivity in these networks is especially high at musical coordination points (otherwise known as joint play onsets) and frontal and central sites are primarily involved in these networks, more so than parietal and occipital sites.

These networks show small-world characteristics: an optimised architecture for communication with high functional integration and segregation. Furthermore, the networks can be subdivided into modules; these are groups of electrodes with especially strong functional connectivity, and some of these modules are formed of electrodes from the two different brains. That means there are some electrodes that are functionally more strongly connected with electrodes from the interaction partner than with electrodes in the same brain.

What are the wider implications for social cognition and coordination?
Finding synchronised neural oscillations during IAC supports the assumption that interacting partners represent not only their own but also their partner’s actions. To be able to act and react within the appropriate timeframe, these parallel representations should have the same time code, and exactly this is reflected in the neural code. It seems that if we do something together, our brains swing together, making up highly functioning networks of between-brain functional connectivity that fills the gap between two interaction partners such that information can be exchanged in the shared intersubjective space.

Investigations of this kind can be seen as a first hint that neural events in the context of IAC are not limited to what happens in the single brain, but that something is formed there which is more than the sum of its parts, and which might be necessary to build bonds across the environmental space.


To read the full article, click here.

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