To understand meetings of minds, scientists should study brains in the wild

Usually, scientific research papers appeal to their readers with results or ideas, not art. But as I was poking through some journals last week, an outlier caught my eye. Instead of the normal bland tables, bar graphs and trend lines, the first illustration in this paper looked more like a frat boy’s Facebook page the day after a rowdy throwdown.

Drunken party pictures are featured as Figure 1 in the paper. Partiers mill around a snack table (though the bottles of booze didn’t seem to leave much room for the food); a photobomber smiles mischievously in the background as a woman poses for the camera; a man looks out from the shadow of his empty martini glass.

These snapshots could have come from any party, except for one glaring difference: The 10 partiers were all wearing EEG caps full of wires and electrodes that recorded brain activity as the revelers chatted, snacked and tied one on.

Their brain signals revealed which of the attendees were three sheets to the wind, scientists from the San Francisco Brain Research Institute & SAM Technology reported. That may not seem like a big deal, because other reliable indicators, like who is wearing the pretzel bowl, can also identify drunkenness. But the results are noteworthy for a different reason.

Most studies of the human brain are done in tightly controlled laboratory situations. A single person completes a task on a computer screen. Or an isolated rat presses a lever. But these party-throwing scientists attempted to catch the brain in its native environment — in the real world, full of other people.

This EEG party moves beyond studies of brains floating in space to the more relevant social brain, the researchers wrote in their paper, published online September 5 in PLOS ONE. Their work is an attempt to cope with an important realization about the human brain: It is shaped by social forces, so to truly understand it, scientists must study how it gets along with others.

Like teenagers with iPhones, human brains are constantly communicating, neuroscientist Uri Hasson of Princeton University and colleagues pointed out in the February Trends in Cognitive Sciences. “What we do most of the time is interact with other brains,” Hasson says.

Hasson does not mean that our brains are plugged into one another in an Avatar type of network, or that telepathy is real. Instead of mystical mental signals floating through the ether, real physical signals travel between human beings, much like the electromagnetic radiation that carries Wi-Fi.

Human brains interact with others through language, gestures, sights and sounds. As these messages jump from person to person, they convey information about what’s going on and evoke responses that can then generate more signals.

These signals can work even when a person is physically alone. Sitting here, writing this, I’m by myself, but I’m also interacting with your brain. That sounds creepier than it is.

As you read these words, cells in your eyes detect the black lettering on your iPad screen. That information zooms along the optic nerve to the back of your brain, where the visual cortex parses and assembles the lines, colors and shapes into a coherent picture of words. Then, through processes that remain somewhat mysterious, the information spreads to other areas of your brain, where ensembles of nerve cells interpret, pass judgment and react.

If you have a really strong reaction to this column, these words might even spark your brain’s motor cortex to get busy, prompting you to start typing out a nice letter. Or, if you hate it, to turn off your iPad. (Really, though, if you think it’s that bad, you should have stopped reading way earlier.)

In this way, reading an article is an interbrain endeavor, straight from the author’s brain to the reader’s. And because this sort of mind-melding happens almost all the time, it makes sense to study a brain that’s currently doing it.

Plucking a brain out of its context and studying it in a lab is a good way to learn some things, but it might not reveal the whole story. Brains firmly embedded in their social lives might behave in unexpected and more interesting ways.

Hasson thinks this “brain-to-brain coupling” will be harder and messier to study than brains in isolation. But the results will be worth it. “Of course, people tell me all the time, ‘One brain is complicated enough,’ ” Hasson says.

Studying two brains or more is exponentially more difficult. “It makes things more complicated,” Hasson says. “But it also might simplify things.”

SN Prime | October 8, 2012 | Vol. 2, No. 38

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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