Research shows that our ability to focus our attention is strongly influenced by the way our brain signals synchronise with those of the people around us.
When you go to the cinema or to a concert with a friend, it often seems that sharing very similar experiences puts your brains on the same level, connecting you. Today, neuroscience is giving this feeling a new basis: using a new technology, wearable headphones that can monitor brain activity, researchers have shown that the brain activity of students in the same classroom is actually synchronised.
"When a person is more focused, they become more synchronised. Finally, we have shown this in the context of everyday life," says Suzanne Dikker, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the Universities of New York and Utrecht and co-author of the new research.
An important tool in the study was a wearable headset that detects brain activity with electrical signals, which the researchers used to monitor students' brain activity during a semester-long biology class at a high school in New York. Twelve high school graduates and their teacher wore the headphones each week during the semester to record brain impulses. The results showed that the more engaged the students were with their classmates and teacher, the more synchronous their brain impulses were and the more focused they were on the activity.
"Attention is the central point," says Professor Dikker. "Many things can determine the focus of attention, from our personality to our state of mind at a given moment. However, we don't just focus on the world around us. Our own social personalities are also very important, as well as what kind of people are around us."
To reinforce the brain impulse data, Dikker and her colleagues prepared questionnaires for the students to fill in before and after class. For example, how focused they were each day, how much they liked the teacher, how they rated their classmates, and the feelings evoked by different group activities during the lesson.
The causal relationship and findings were highlighted by comparing the data on brain activity recorded during the semester with the questionnaires filled in by the students. When students' brain impulses were more synchronous with each other, they were more engaged in the lesson.
Researchers have also found that students' one-on-oneinteractions before class change the way they react to group experiences afterwards. Studies show that pupils who reported having a closer friendship with another pupil also experienced greater brain synchronisation during the lesson - and this only happened when they spent time in pairs before the lesson started.
This study proves that our brains respond to the team environment around us, but it's not just group development that matters to students. Individual synchronisation with another person later becomes a significant factor in group activities.
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