Eyes on the Brain

A neurobiologist explores the amazing capacity of the brain to rewire itself at any age

Face-To-Face

Does face-to-face communication synchronize our brains?

About ten years ago, a friend of mine suggested that I join our local town’s chorale.  Singing with other people is deeply pleasurable, she told me.  So I joined the chorale and discovered exactly what she meant.  As we sang, I felt a bond with the other singers - and with the conductor too.  When the conductor looked at us, gestured, and waved his baton, we began to sing.  We connected and made music together.  Oliver Sacks writes about the communal experience of music in his book Musicophilia, suggesting that, in some sense, shared music seems to create a binding together of nervous systems.

Is a similar connection formed during face-to-face conversation, that is, during exchanges when we look at one another, smile, frown, gesture, and take turns talking?   The fact that we have a special area of our brain devoted to recognizing faces and facial expressions suggests that face-to-face dialog is important.  And a recent paper in the Journal of Neuroscience indicates that this is indeed the case. 

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In this study, subjects conversed with each other while talking either face-to-face or with their backs turned to each other.  At the same time, their brain activity was monitored with near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). This technique monitors changes in brain blood flow which reflect changes in brain activity.  When the subjects talked face-to-face, but not back-to-back, they shared similar activity in their left inferior frontal cortex.  Synchronization between the subjects’ brains was also greater when the participants took turns talking as opposed to when one individual delivered a monologue while the other listened.  The left inferior frontal cortex contains mirror neurons, or neurons that fire both during the performance of a specific action and when watching others perform that action.  Perhaps, this is why, during face-to-face exchanges, we often mimic the other person’s postures, expressions, and grammar.

We have many ways to communicate now – through cell phones, email, and texting.  In some ways, we are more connected to each other than in any previous century.  Skype may come close, but none of these forms of communication can replace the age-old act of talking face-to-face.    

Susan R. Barry, Ph.D., is a professor of neurobiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College and the author of Fixing My Gaze (June, 2009).

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