Why your brain waves dictate whether you click with someone – or can’t stand them...

Body language mirroring, such as copying someone's physical posture, may be a great way to make friends and influence people — and sync brain waves together – writes John Naish

The higher the levels of neural synchrony between spouses – or the more in sync their brain waves are – the higher their reported happiness with their marriages
The higher the levels of neural synchrony between spouses – or the more in sync their brain waves are – the higher their reported happiness with their marriages

Does the secret to happy family bonds, lasting friendships, romantic bliss, academic and work success lie in getting our brain waves into sync with those of the people around us?

That's the intriguing idea being raised by a wealth of research that investigates how our brain wave activity can get into the same patterns (or in sync) with the brain waves of people we feel compatible with.

Brain waves are electrical patterns that measure only millionths of a volt. There are five widely recognised ones — alpha, beta, gamma, delta and theta — and these are believed to regulate how we think and act.

They can be detected by EEG (electroencephalogram, which analyses electrical activity in the brain) read-outs as our brains go about their everyday functions.

For example, beta waves are thought to occur during most of our conscious, waking states, while alpha waves occur when we feel relaxed and thoughtful. Delta waves are linked with deep sleep.

Scientists call the phenomenon of people syncing their brain waves with each other 'neural synchrony', and suggest this may explain why we 'click' (or not) with others.

How neural synchrony can determine the success or failure of romantic relationships is highlighted this month by research in the journal Sexual Medicine Reviews.

The analysis of previous research data suggests that when a new couple's brain waves start to sync together, this alters the way they behave.

"They often mimic each other's common facial and body movements," the scientists from Charles University in Prague and Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore said — and this physical mimicking is believed to show that people feel warmly comfortable together.

When some of these romantic relationships subsequently falter, then the couple's brain wave patterns — and, consequently, their facial and body movements — often fall out of sync, said the researchers.

The report reinforces research published last year that closely questioned 48 married couples about the quality of their union, then scanned their brains while they watched film clips together that showed relationship situations such as romance, children and disputes.

The researchers, from Stanford University in the US and the University of Electronic Science and Technology in China, compared the married couples' brain responses with those of strangers who'd been randomly paired up to watch the same film clips together.

While watching, the married couples showed significantly higher levels of brain-wave synchrony than the random couples, the researchers reported in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

What's more, the higher the levels of neural synchrony between spouses, the higher their reported happiness with their marriages.

The study concluded: "In contrast to demographic and personality measures, which are unreliable predictors of marital satisfaction, neural synchronisation of brain responses while viewing maritally relevant movies predicted higher levels of marital satisfaction in couples."

So should marriage guidance counsellors move over and let the EEG brain scanners do their job for them?

This may rather depend on a chicken-and-egg question, regarding whether couples are more likely to get together in the first place if their brains are already highly in sync, or whether happy relationships increasingly synchronise people's brains.

As one of the study's authors, Vinod Menon, a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences at Stanford, said: "We don't know whether there are selection-based behaviours arising from similar brain activity in a relationship, or whether couples evolve over time to develop similar brain scan representations."

However, other research suggests that we readily sync our brains with people with whom we are friendly. We even do it when just watching them doing ordinary everyday activities, neuroscientists in Italy reported in July in the journal NeuroImage.

Scientists at the Neuroscience of Perception and Action Laboratory in Rome recruited 23 pairs of participants who were familiar with each other, and asked them to look at each other and behave spontaneously, without any specific task or instruction to guide their interaction.

The researchers used EEGs, along with eye-tracking and video analysis, to measure their eye contact, body movements and smiles. These were all recorded over several two-minute trials.

The researchers found that even without a structured task, the pairs' brain waves spontaneously fell into sync when the participants could see each other, regardless of whether they were in close proximity or nine metres apart.

As with the romantic-success study, the researchers noticed that the more people's brains synced, the more they also mirrored each other's physical actions, such as eye contact, body movement and smiling.

The researchers argue that social behaviour and brain synchrony reciprocally influence each other.

In fact, they claim that social behaviour may have a bigger impact on brain synchrony than the other way around — so that when two people meet and mirror each other's physical actions, such as making eye-contact or smiling, these joint behaviours may then trigger their brains to 'sync up'.

The neuroscientists concluded: "Neural activity is contagious and can be spread between people through their behavioural cues."

Thus, positive body-language mirroring, such as copying someone's physical posture (for example, the way they are sitting or are holding their arms) may be a great way to make friends and influence people — and thereby sync your brain waves together.

Other research suggests that people can even synchronise brain waves without physically being in each other's company.

In a study last year by cognitive scientists at the University of Helsinki in Finland, investigators asked randomly paired volunteers to play a game in which they controlled a racing car together, while they sat apart in different soundproof rooms and their brains were scanned using EEGs.

They found that as the players co-operated to drive the car, their alpha and beta brain waves became increasingly synchronised. And the more the players' brains synced, the better they tended to perform in the game, according to the study published in the journal Neuropsychologia.

Regardless of how we sync our brains, it seems that we start to do it early in life — from the age of nine months at least, according to researchers by Princeton Baby Lab in New Jersey.

They used a scanning system on the babies called functional near-infrared spectroscopy, which tracks what parts of the brain are using oxygen from blood as energy — and thus which regions are most active. Thus it maps brain activity in real time.

The experiment involved adult researchers playing with the babies, singing or reading stories.

The results showed that when directly interacting, certain regions of the baby's and adult's brains displayed neural synchrony. But this connection disappeared if the baby and researcher faced away from each other.

Elise Piazza, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences who led the study, which was published in the journal Psychological Science in 2019, said: "Both the adult and baby brains tracked joint eye contact and joint attention to toys.

"So when a baby and adult play together, their brains influence each other in dynamic ways."

Such synchrony may be crucial to academic success when those babies enter their school years, according to a study in April.

This reported that those students who exhibit 'brain-to-brain synchrony' with their classmates and teachers are more likely to learn effectively.

One might just call this 'paying attention in class', but the researchers behind the study said it's much more than that.

The scientists found that they could accurately predict a student's success or failure by assessing how 'synced' they were with the rest of the class.

Students whose brain activity was more in sync with their peers and with the teacher had higher post-lecture test scores, the scientists reported in the journal Psychological Science.

They were even able to predict which test questions students would answer correctly based on the synchrony of their brain waves during corresponding moments of the lecture.

Suzanne Dikker, the professor of psychology at New York University who led the study, said: "Our work reveals that students whose brain waves are more in sync with their peers and teacher are likely to learn better."

Brain-syncing science won't only interest lovers, parents and teachers. Politicians may well want to get in on the act, thanks to a US study in February that found how people with shared ideologies tend to show similar brain wave patterns.

Neuroscientists at Brown University in Rhode Island, who studied 22 conservatives and 22 liberals, reported in the journal Science Advances that the brains of people with the same political ideologies tend to react in sync when watching films of political events.

So perhaps, in future, rather than sending opinion pollsters to quiz us, political campaigners will ask us to wear medical headsets —– to discover whether our minds will sync with their latest brain waves... or whether, instead, our hearts will sink.

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