players’ brains synchronize, even from a distance

Cooperation in video games goes further than one might think.

If you’ve ever scored a fabulous team goal in Rocket Leaguetaken over a site with surgical precision in counter strike or swept away your enemy with a ruthless collaborative combo in MultiVersusyou know full well that coordination is fundamental in team video games.

And if you sometimes feel like you’re one with our playing partners, it’s not just because you’re used to playing together; according to Finnish researchers, it is also because the brains of the players are physically in tune.

The brain of living beings, including humans, exhibits rhythmic electrical activity. When the intensity of these signals is measured, they can be broken down into several patterns that repeat over time; we are talking about brain waves.

Their study is very interesting for clinicians. Indeed, this neuroelectric activity is an excellent indicator of the patient’s physiological and psychological state of health. By analyzing it through an electroencephalogram, it is possible in particular to identify certain neurological disorders such as epilepsy.

Brain waves, the mysterious “language” of the brain

But the interest of these waves is not limited to diagnostics. The processes involved remain quite mysterious; but it has already been proven that they are directly correlated to lots of phenomena not necessarily linked to a pathology.

For example, researchers already showed more than ten years ago that the brain waves of different subjects tended to synchronize during certain social interactions. Since then, other studies have proven that this synchronization is relationally significant. The more the neuroelectric activities of two individuals are synchronizedthe more they are able to showing empathy to each other or work effectively in a team.

Until now, all this work had a common denominator. They were always based on interactions between subjects physically present in the same place. However, this new study was built on a different approach. It made it possible to show for the first time that this phenomenon absolutely did not depend on the physical proximity between the two partners.

Remotely synchronized brains

To reach this conclusion, they selected 42 Finnish students whom they asked to play a game where cooperation was essential. They had to drive a car together; the first member of the duo was in charge of the direction, while his colleague had to manage the speed. The roles were reversed after each round.

This is typically a situation that promotes the synchronization of certain brain waves between the two players. Or at least they do when playing side by side. But here, the researchers were curious to observe what would happen on a neurological level if the players engaged in the same activity while separated.

Each player was placed in a separate, soundproof room. They were also deprived of headphones, and therefore absolutely could not discuss verbally during the experiment. The only form of communication they had access to was the behavior of the car they simultaneously controlled.

And it turns out that despite this separation, the researchers observed a significant synchronization of certain brain waves (the alpha, beta and gamma waves). The more the range waves were synchronized, the more impressive their short-term performance. Statistically, it was the teams that exhibited strong alpha wave synchronization that performed the best overall.

They still had to make sure that it was not an anomaly in the procedure or a statistical bias. The researchers therefore formed new pairs with participants at the comparable level, but who had never played together. The synchronization here was non-existent or very weak.

video games
© JESHOOTS – Unsplash

Implications still unclear but already fascinating

These elements show that a team gradually builds this cerebral synchronization over the course of a common experience. It is therefore not a kind of “innate understanding” between two players of the same level.

This study shows that interbrain synchronization also occurs in the context of cooperative online games, and that it can be measured reliably says Valtteri Wikström, neurobiologist at the University of Helsinki and lead author of the study.

By the researchers’ own admission, the concrete implications of this discovery are still rather vague. But knowing the profound implications of this synchronization on social relations, they could be quite advanced. The scientists believe their work is a promising start; they could make it possible to develop technologies with a positive impact on human ties. And this even outside the framework of video games.

If we can build interactive digital experiences that stimulate fundamental mechanisms of empathy, it can lead to better social relationships, well-being, and even better online productivity. “, explain the authors.

We are not there yet; it will now be necessary to determine precisely which precise mechanisms favor this synchronization and under which conditions. But it is in any case a fascinating horizon of research in our time when online social relations have become the norm. Especially since science still lacks perspective to properly study the psychological and relational impact of these technologies.

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