Lately, I’ve been studying the research about brain patterns between people to work out exactly when it is that we get on someone else’s wavelength – and why. In this process, I came across some fascinating material about what happens to us physically when we work together for a common purpose.
In this study, carried out at the Center for Lifespan Psychology at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, in Berlin, Germany and the University of Salzburg, in Austria, the scientists wanted to determine whether our brains, in a sense, ever act ‘in tandem’ with others when we’re engaged in a common purpose, considering that so much of our interaction with the world consists in synchronized and goal-directed actions with other people.
Although research had been done with functional magnetic resonance imaging, no one before had examined simultaneous brain wave activity between people doing some work together.
A brain wave of a study
The German and Austrian scientists themselves had a brain wave. They decided to study brain activity of each of eight pairs of guitarists playing a short melody together to see to what extent cortical activity is synchronized between people when they’re working together (or, in this case, ‘swinging in concert’, as they put it).
They were encouraged by recent studies of two people when they socially interact. They found that one rhythm was associated with independent behavior, while another brain wave rhythm showed up and was shared by both parties when the behavior was coordinated.
In this study, the Germans made use of an electroencephalogram (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain and is extraordinarily sensitive, capable of picking up the most minute of effects – even one-millionth of a volt of electricity.
Each of the eight musicians were instructed to wear a EEG cap while they played together, and the brain activity was then recorded.
Using special algorithms to both analyze of the brain activity of each person and in relation to his partner, the scientists found that the brain waves of each pair were highly synchronized and ‘in phase’ – that is, the waves peaking and troughing at certain points while preparing and beginning their coordinated play.
In fact, entire areas of the brain had synchronized patterns, with the frontal and central regions the strongest, but the temporal and parietal regions also showing high synchronization in at least half the guitarist pairs.
As the scientists discovered, the brain waves were most synchronized just when the musicians listened to the metronome to set the tempo and then when they began playing they melody together.
The researchers concluded that whenever people do things together in a synchronized fashion, their brain waves follow suit.
We don’t yet know whether these couplings play an important role in maintaining interpersonal relations. Nevertheless, it appears that it may do, particularly as this kind of brain wave synchronization also appears to have a vital role in early social development.
In synch with mom
This begins with the first and most important relationship: our mothers. From our first breath, our heart waves and brain waves copy those of our mother whenever she is close by.
Researchers such as Joseph Chiltern Pearce, author of Magical Child (Penguin, 2002), investigating why mothers are so naturally able to care for their children, discovered that the electrical frequencies of both the hearts and brains of both mother and child tend to go into entrainment, or synchrony, when the mother is engaged in breastfeeding or some other close direct interaction.
Indeed, other researchers, such as neurologist Dr. Alan Schore, who has done seminal work on attachment theory, believe that a baby learns to fire and wire its brain from its mother, who acts like a kind of brain-wave ‘template’.
As Schore once put it, ‘The prefrontal cortex of the mother becomes the prefrontal cortex of the infant.’
Our pre-frontal lobes essentially get copied from this master template.
Psychologist Dr. Gary Schwartz from the University of Arizona has even been able to identify the EEG pattern of the mother encoded within the EEG of the child and vice versa. He believes that this encoding may be more pronounced, the closer the two are.
As I recounted in my book The Intention Experiment, a great deal of evidence show that under many types of circumstances, the electrical signalling in the brains of people gets synchronized (See the chapter called ‘The Love Study’).
This is particularly the case when someone is sending loving intention to the other.
Ultimately, this could be the basis of all close relationships. We are able to get on with each other by getting on each other’s brain wave.
What fires together. . .
Donald Hebb first suggested in 1949 that neurons become more efficient and operate as a unit when they are repeatedly and persistently stimulated together. Or as scientists usually put it: Neurons that fire together wire together.
What may be also true is that people who fire together wire together.
I think this is what may be happening when we carry out intention in small groups. As you know, I have supported the creation of micro communities on the Intention Experiment website or in my workshops.
I witness a powerful bonding between perfect strangers that can occur in a single day, which may have something to do with the seemingly miraculous healings that occur.
Uniting in common purpose
So this new research, while very preliminary, has a great significance. When we work with others for a common purpose, we very quickly and literally get on their wave length.
Consider this in relation to what we discussed last week – how our modern middle-class neighborhoods have become toxic to all concerned.
I witnessed firsthand how uniting in common purpose can dissolve many seemingly insurmountable differences. I live on the outskirts of London among a group of professionals, with whom I have little in common, and there is little neighborly interaction except of the most perfunctory variety.
However, this all changed several years ago, when Orange, a British cell phone company, announced its intention to install eight cell towers in our town, with one right on our block.
My neighbors and I were extremely concerned about the potential detrimental effects of a cell tower, particularly on our health, and within days, we were party to the most extraordinary social transformation. Eight of the women (myself included) came together and formed a ‘housewife’s’ brigade to protest Orange’s plans.
Faced with a common purpose, we needed no one in charge. Everyone simply volunteered to take on whatever was necessary, and the division of labor happened automatically.
I was most interested, however, in the effect of this crisis on our relationships. I watched with fascination as this group of women with virtually nothing in common put aside their differences and began to relate to each other on a deeper level. In this emergency, we found the soul of a community we’d never thought we had.
All this suggests that coming together in small groups with a common purpose will unite us and provide a social cohesion beyond money, job or size of property.
What are your thoughts about how to create this new neighborhood of common purpose, to replace Wisteria Lane? Write below, or write in to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.