When classes are engaging, students’ brainwaves sync up

Taking neuroscience out of the lab and into the real world yields new results.

A class of high school biology students recently had a semester like no other. While they were sitting in class, researchers were recording their brainwaves for a groundbreaking neuroscience study. The data revealed that when the students liked the class or each other, their brain waves were in sync.

The experiment, led by New York University neuroscientist David Poeppel, was designed to take neuroscience methods out of the lab and into the real world to observe genuine social interactions. “Naturalistic environments are messy, noisy places in which it is virtually impossible to obtain good experimental control,” said co-lead author Suzanne Dikker. Yet some types of social activity can be difficult, even impossible, to replicate in the artificial environment of a lab. The classroom offered the perfect compromise: an authentic, highly social environment in which it was still possible to introduce some level of control.

A student is fitted with an EEG headset. Credit: Student Film Crew

While engaging in normal classroom activity, the students wore portable EEG devices, which measure the brain’s electrical activity. They also rated the teacher, class activities, and their relationships with other classmates. When researchers analyzed the EEG results, they found the students’ brains synchronized more with each other when they liked the class and the teacher. Pairs of students who reported liking each other were more likely to sync brainwaves if they’d interacted before class.

The authors hypothesize that this brain syncing happens because of a phenomenon called neural entrainment. “Your brainwaves ride on top of sound waves or light patterns in the outside world. The more you pay attention, the more your brain locks to these patterns,” explains Dikker. “So if you and the person next to you are both engaged, your brainwaves will be similar.” It’s this synchrony that allows us to coordinate with each other in everyday scenarios like walking down the street at the same pace, dancing, or moving a sofa down a flight of stairs. “It’s very important to human interaction,” said Dikker.

A student's EEG headset is set up. Credit: Student Film Crew

These new findings add to growing evidence that social context shapes how we engage with the world, even if we’re doing something not inherently social, like watching a movie. The approach could inform everything from training social cues for teenagers with autism spectrum disorders to enhancing audience experiences at concerts.

Dikker says she also hopes the team’s results will enable more studies outside of the lab—she herself will be looking at how brains sync in an auditorium setting. “The research community has been very skeptical toward real-world neuroscience, and rightfully so. Now, based on our positive experience, other groups can start research efforts with a bit more confidence they won’t be in vein.”

Featured image courtesy of the Government of Prince Edward Island.