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Study: Collaborative online game synchronizes brains

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A Finnish research team has shown how the brain waves of spatially separated people can be synchronized.

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When people do something together, when they show prosocial behavior, not only do they usually feel better, their brainwaves sync up with each other. The mechanism behind this is not really understood yet, but the effect can be reproduced well – and is often subjectively associated with a feeling of connectedness and cooperation. So far, however, it has been unclear whether it is necessary for this phenomenon that people are also directly, i.e. physically, together.

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Until now, many cognitive researchers have assumed that our skills for social interaction developed from face-to-face communication. And that smell, body language, proximity and distance or even touch are an important part of this communication. Psychologists such as Jean Twenge from San Diego State University assume that the use of smartphones and the almost exclusive communication via social media isolates young people, leads to more loneliness and can cause other serious psychological damage.

In their new study, however, the Finnish researchers have now demonstrated that online interaction can have effects similar to those of joint activities offline. “If we can create interactive digital experiences that activate fundamental mechanisms of empathy, it can lead to better social relationships, well-being and productivity online,” says project leader Katri Saarikivi.

The study, conducted at the University of Helsinki, examined brain wave synchronization while pairs of subjects played a game in which they piloted a virtual racing car together – with one person being able to accelerate and brake the car, and the second person being able to do so could drive the car. The subjects stayed in two separate, soundproof rooms.

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The results of EEG measurements during the game showed that there is indeed a synchronization between the brains in cooperative online games. In addition, increased synchronicity in the alpha and gamma frequency bands is associated with better game performance. This relationship between power and gamma synchronization could be observed continuously over time.

Facial expressions and gestures, which normally enable social interaction, were absent in this experiment. “The only mediator was the game the subjects were playing — the cooperative movement of the car,” the authors write. “This required predicting and observing the partner’s actions and responding to them with the participant’s own actions, either by controlling the direction or the speed of the car.” perform their game partner – an important part of social interaction.

Alternatively, however, it could also be that the game itself triggers a kind of flow experience in the players, which creates similar brainwave patterns. The third possible explanation would be a simultaneous excitation of the reward center through successful play together. In future work, the researchers now want to investigate the effect of various other “coordinated activities” and design online environments that have a particularly positive effect on the synchronization – and thus also the joint performance – of the test subjects.


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