Real-World Neuroscience Research Promotes Human Interactions

Real-world neuroscience research puts face-to-face eye contact in the spotlight.

Posted Mar 27, 2017

Source: VLADGRIN/Shutterstock

This year at the Cognitive Neuroscience Society 2017 meeting in San Francisco (March 25-28) a diverse group of trailblazing neuroscientists are presenting eye-opening research that was conducted “out of the lab” in a variety of real-world environments—such as classrooms, performance art-inspired museum installations, and intensive care units for premature babies.

For decades, neuroscientists have been struggling to advance our understanding of the human brain while only conducting experiments in sterile laboratory settings that can’t possibly recreate the multisensory aspects of living, moving, and interacting with other human beings in the real world.

Luckily, the advent of real-world neuroscience research is changing the academic landscape in ways that will make it easier to apply empirical evidence to help improve people's daily lives and promote face-to-face human interactions. There is a growing body of evidence showing that one of the detriments of living "Alone Together" (as Sherry Turkle would say) in a digital era is the perceived social isolation created by modern technology and social media.  

Pawel Matusz of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland is a chair of the CNS 2017 symposium on real-world neuroscience research. Recently, Matusz and colleagues have been conducting real-world scientific research using soft EEG caps to gauge the importance of gentle, loving touch and skin-to-skin contact on the neurodevelopment of preterm infants in NICUs. (I reported on Matusz's latest research in a March 2017 Psychology Today blog post, "More Proof That Skin-to-Skin Contact Benefits Babies' Brains.") 

Another researcher who is pioneering the next frontier of taking neuroscientific research out of the lab—and who is giving a lecture at the 2017 CNS symposium titled, "Are We Ready for Real-World Neuroscience Research?"—is Suzanne Dikker of NYU and the University of Utrecht. In response to the symposium's overarching question: "Have we reached a point where we can confidently abandon neuroscience laboratory-based experiments?" Dikker presented her extensive real-world neuroscience research, which focuses on studying brain-to-brain synchrony.

The video below recaps some of Suzanne Dikker's "Out of the Lab" recent real-world neuroscience research:Suzanne Dikker's multidisciplinary research merges cognitive neuroscience, educational development, and performance art. In an effort to understand the neurodynamics of human social interactions, Dikker has created a variety of unique real-world environments in which she measures brain-to-brain EEG responses as two people make eye contact while seated face-to-face.

Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze Using Real-World Neuroscience Methods

A few years ago, Dikker connected with legendary performance artist, Marina Abramovic, who is notorious for sitting in a chair silently in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in Manhattan during her "The Artist Is Present" installation. In this wildly popular performance art piece, Abramovic sat across from an estimated 1,400 different museum goers for approximately 700 hours. She maintained face-to-face eye contact with each individual person for durations ranging from a few minutes to an entire day.

After this experience, Abramovic was eager to collaborate with a neuroscientist to explore the inner workings of the brain that occur when two people sit face-to-face making eye contact. So, Suzanne Dikker and Marina Abramovic created what they call a "science+art" installation titled Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze.

In this installation, two rotating brains light up and pulsate at a frequency that represents brainwave activity in various brain regions being measured in real-time by an EEG headset device that each participant wears as they sit face-to-face making eye contact, just as Marina had spent months doing at MoMA.

Whenever there is a moment of perfect brainwave unison and synchronization between two people, a connective lightning bolt—originating from the direct brain area that is being charged with electrical brain activity at that moment in each person—flashes above the two rotating brains being projected onto a large screen.

This video below illustrates how brain-to-brain synchrony recorded brainwaves were displayed on a large screen in this real-world neuroscience research experiment:

Suzanne Dikker is driven by a calling to push the boundaries of scientific research into uncharted territories combined with an artistic vision to open people’s eyes to the beauty of brain science. That said, when Dikker was first approached by an artist to create a real-world neuroscience project that would become a performance art installation, she had some reservations that art-based collaborations might dilute her credibility in academic circles. But she charged ahead nonetheless.

The good news is that Dikker's iconoclastic efforts to blend neuroscience and art are being recognized and appreciated by scientific peers—as reflected by her invitation to speak at the 2017 CNS symposium, numerous grants, and other accolades. Personally, I find her art+science work to be visually stunning, fun-loving, and highly informative. 

Take a Ride In "The Compatibility Racer" Or "Mutual Wave Machine"

Suzanne Dikker creates unique hybrid projects that blend neurofeedback with human interaction in a tangible and often breathtaking way. When Lauren Silbert of Princeton University met Suzanne during the magic of mutual gaze installations, they decided to create a novel and extremely multisensory brain-to-brain synchrony experience called “The Compatibility Racer.”

This vehicle is basically a two-person buggy propelled forward when two people sitting face-to-face wearing EEG headsets create brainwaves between themselves that are in perfect harmony. The more connected you are, the faster the compatibility racer goes. 

Whenever a duo seated face-to-face "clicks" by getting on the same wavelength, the compatibility racer begins to spin around a pole like a merry-go-round. Conversely, if there is no chemistry or brain-to-brain synchrony between two people, there is also no subsequent motion. Because the racer measures compatibility, if two people don't click, it becomes like a stalled car in need of a jump start. (As a side note: This is a very cool gizmo that could literally take speed dating to new paces.

The next art+science project that Dikker spearheaded was called the “Mutual Wave Machine," in which two people sit face-to-face in a glowing orb (that is somewhat reminiscent of Mork and Mindy) wearing EEG headsets to monitor each person’s brain waves as they make eye contact.

For this installation, Suzanne Dikker collaborated up Matthias Oostrik (along with the secondary involvement of media artist Peter Burr) to create visuals that ebb and flow from darkness to light based on the brain-to-brain synchrony of two people sitting face-to-face while making eye contact, and often holding hands.

Initially, the two-person orb is situated in complete darkness. But as brain synchrony increases, the orb begins to fill up with more and more light. And then, patterns begin to emerge as the two people hold a mutual gaze. Additionally, a real-time image of each person is projected behind the face of the other. If someone becomes distracted and shifts his or her gaze to look at themselves on the magnified screen (like Narcissus checking out his own reflection) the orb goes dim. 

Aside from the “wow!” factor of sitting in these various brain-to-brain synchrony installations, people are able to consciously experience specific dynamics of connecting face-to-face and making eye contact with others—which usually occur in a subconscious domain. This type of neurofeedback has very exciting therapeutic possibilities for helping those with Asperger's syndrome or autism spectrum disorders (ASD).

In her most recent real-world neuroscience research, Dikker and colleagues used their portable EEG equipment to measure the electrical brain activity of children in a classroom environment as students were all learning the same subject. Interestingly, the researchers found that having some type of interactive eye contact with other students at the beginning of the class dramatically influenced brain synchrony and improved group dynamics throughout the entire classroom teaching session. 

By using portable EEG to measure brain activity among larger groups of students in a classroom, the researchers were able to record multiple people simultaneously in a practical, everyday real-world environment. In a statement to CNS, Dikker said:

"The goal of our research is to understand the neurodynamics of real-world social interactions, and we used the classroom as a real-world social neuroscience lab. The setup we developed allows us to investigate aspects of human social interaction that are difficult or even impossible to study in a canonical laboratory setting."

Real-World Neuroscience Research Has Some Technological Limitations

Most lab-grade neuroimaging equipment is very expensive and immobile. Of course, it would be practically impossible to bring a dozen fMRI scanners (which are about the size of a minivan) into a classroom or museum. Therefore, Dikker and colleagues have adapted a low-grade EEG system to use in real-world experiments that they can set up just about anywhere in a few minutes. 

Another technological limitation of current real-world neuroscience research is that you can only measure the electrical brain activity on the surface of the cerebral cortex, but not what’s going on underneath, in subcortical brain structures. This means that researchers aren't getting a complete picture of the entire brain working in concert. In order for researchers to analyze what’s happening in subcortical parts of the brain—such as the basal ganglia, brainstem, and cerebellum—you’d need something like a portable lab-grade fMRI, which doesn't currently exist. 

Additionally, any type of magnetic resonance neuroimaging still requires laying horizontally inside a narrow casket-like tube, which is both isolating and claustrophobic. By its very nature, the confining aspects of today's fMRI brain imaging methods defeat the purpose of being in the real-world and trying to gauge authentic brain-to-brain human interactions.

Most likely, technological limitations will continue to present hurdles for conducting real-world neuroscientific studies in the foreseeable future. That being said, continued public and private investment could lead to innovative technologies that will improve real-world brain imaging methods and lead to neuroscientific breakthroughs. 

Suzanne Dikker openly acknowledges that adapting neuroscientific research to the real-world comes with some scientific sacrifices. In a statement to CNS, she said:

"It is unrealistic to expect the same level of data quality and experimental control from real-world neuroscience studies as we demand from laboratory experiments. And we would never argue that efforts like ours move the field in a direction where the lab will become obsolete. Instead, we think of real-world research as a complementary approach that can inform, enrich, and inspire lab research, and vice versa."

Real-world neuroscience methods have a variety of potential applications. For example, Dikker's team wants to develop and test a game-like neurofeedback system designed for high-functioning autistic teenagers, to see if the method can help them respond better to social cues. Dikker is also eager to investigate why making face-to-face eye contact facilitates brain-to-brain synchrony more than any other measurable stimuli.

Combining Virtual Reality (VR) and Real-World Neuroscience Research 

Last week, at the IEEE Virtual Reality 2017 conference in Los Angeles, scientists from Disney Research presented a first-of-its-kind paper "Catching a Ball in Virtual Reality" which blended real-world objects into a VR digital interface. Although the Disney Research didn't dive deeply into neuroscience, the advances being made by Günter Niemeyer and Matthew Pan at Disney remind me of the real-world neuroscience research being conducted by Suzanne Dikker. 

One of my biggest hypothetical concerns about future breakthroughs in virtual reality technology is the potential to inadvertently create more perceived social isolation and human disconnection. In my recent Psychology Today blog post, "Disney Research Pioneers New Frontiers Using Virtual Reality," I concluded: 

"On the potential dark side of this new technology, there is always the possibility that relying too much on VR advances could create a type of 'Future Shock' or disconnection from face-to-face human interactions . . . That being said, these are exciting times for pioneering research in both the worlds of virtual reality and neuroscience. Hopefully, upcoming neuroscientific and VR discoveries will be applied in a marriage of virtual reality with 'everyday reality' that improves daily lives and fortifies the best in all of us."

Based on the zeitgeist of two major conferences on modern technology and real-world interactions being held in California this past week, it's clear that we are on the precipice of a new frontier that could become like the Wild West. Hopefully, conscientious scientists will continue to "go where no man has gone before" in ways that make us more connected and less divided. 


Suzanne Dikker, Lauren J. Silbert, Uri Hasson, Jason D. Zevin. On the Same Wavelength: Predictable Language Enhances Speaker–Listener Brain-to-Brain Synchrony in Posterior Superior Temporal Gyrus. Journal of Neuroscience 30 April 2014, 34 (18) 6267-6272; DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3796-13.2014

Matusz PJ, Broadbent H, Ferrari J, Forrest B, Merkley R, Scerif G. (2015) Multi-modal distraction: Insights from children’s limited attention. Cognition 136:156-165

Nathalie L. Maitre, Alexandra P. Key, Olena D. Chorna, James C. Slaughter, Pawel J. Matusz, Mark T. Wallace, Micah M. Murray. The Dual Nature of Early-Life Experience on Somatosensory Processing in the Human Infant Brain. Current Biology. (2017)

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