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On the Same Wavelength

We all have some idea of what it feels like to be on the same wavelength as someone—to feel charged by some tangible, electric connection with another human being. Psychobiologist Suzanne Dikker has ventured to delve deeper into this feeling to understand the neurological underpinnings of human social interaction.

Brainwaves + associated cognitive states.

Our brains are made up of billions of neurons, which communicate with one another through bursts of electrical activity. The sum of all those electrical impulses can actually be recorded on the surface of our scalps with an electroencephalogram [EEG], allowing researchers to trace and analyze patterns of electrical activity, or brainwaves. To peer into the minds of individuals engaged in paired interaction, Suzanne uses portable EEG headsets to analyze how their brainwaves behave as they communicate and how those patterns track with moments of meaningful social interaction. When we’re on the same wavelength, are our brainwaves actually moving more in sync? And what does that actually mean?

To investigate the neuroscience underlying the art of communication, Suzanne has married the tools and methods of cognitive neuroscience with those of neurofeedback art, collaborating with the likes of performance artist Marina Abramović and interactive media designer Matthias Oostrik to artfully weave aesthetics into each experimental design. These collaborative efforts have culminated in a series of interactive works that actually mirror the fun and frustration that go hand-in-hand with social interaction. These projects creatively crowd-source neuroscience through audience participation, inviting participants to become a part of the research as they engage with the art and with each other.

Below, enjoy ArtLab’s Q+A with Suzanne as she shares the details of her research and her insights into working at the intersection between science and art.

Your work with Marina Abramović was really the jumping off point for your current work, both in terms of investigating brainwave synchronicity and working at art-science intersection. So how did “Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze” and your collaboration with Marina come about in the first place?

The Sackler Family Foundation organizes this annual Art and Science: Insights into Consciousness workshop at The Watermill Center. So right after Marina Abramović did her “The Artist Is Present,” they had a meeting in the summer of 2010 and everyone was really intrigued by how connected the audience members felt to her—there were a lot of emotional reactions both from Marina and from the participants’ perspectives. So they thought maybe we could investigate this.

What Marina initially wanted was to take an fMRI machine and have her brain scanned and then do this reverse classification so we could infer from the brain scan how she felt at a certain moment. But that really isn’t really possible in the current state of affairs. So instead, we thought what may be interesting is to look at whether we can see correlated activity between people’s brains, and we can do this using EEG, which is portable.

So I set out to do this project—”Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze“—where we took portable EEG headsets and had people sit together making eye contact. I brought in a close friend, Matthias Oostrik, who’s an interactive media artist to help develop the visuals so that the audience could also see something in the background. That first project was called “Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze.” We took the EEG signal and split it into different frequency bands so you could see which frequency is dominant in each person’s brain by the frequency of the flickering. You can then compare the brainwaves from one person to the brainwaves of the other by which frequency is dominant in each brain. Whenever the frequencies overlap past a certain threshold, then we see these waves that connect between the two brains. So that’s when there’s strong correlation or synchronization in activity.

Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze, 2011. Garage Center for Contemporary Culture. Photo by Maxim Lubimov

So you actually collected a bunch of data from “Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze.” What were some of your initial findings and can they actually give any hints into what’s happening in the brain when we intensely engage in eye contact with another person?

That’s actually the best data we’ve gotten because people sat still for 30 minutes and did nothing except look into each other’s eyes. We found the most synchronicty in alpha waves at right posterior sensors, which are the ones that best pick up brain activity associated with visual processes. Alpha frequency waves are associated with concentration and focus. What was interesting was that Marina’s brain had much more alpha activity across the board compared to the other participants’ brains.

So you have your two brains connecting, but there has to be something that mediates that connection in the real world too, at least if you ask me. Marina might say: “Well, that’s some sort of telepathic transfer of energy.” Or she might not even think that that’s necessarily the most interesting question to ask. But we as scientists are trained to ask: What in the physical world mediates that connectivity? What actually drives this? So with the alpha synchronization, for example, maybe you’re better in tune with each other’s blinking rate and that resets alpha so you’re on the same wavelength. Is there another explanation that’s more feasible or plausible? So it’s maybe not so mystical, but it’s still interesting.

It’s kind of a new field to compare brain activity directly between people. But at the same time, in any experimental study, you’re never just looking at one brain. You have a group of subjects, and it’s the average correlated activity between all those people that we use to determine if a result is significant. So it’s not such a drastically new theoretical thing, but people very often present it as such in the literature.

The Compatibility Racer, Berlin 2013: “a competitive, interactive brain-robotics installation.” Photo by Kate Moxham

Once I realized this, I asked myself: “What is actually interesting to ask? Are there actually interesting questions where you do need two people in the same room doing something at the same time where you record brain activity from both of them?” And it’s actually kind of difficult. There’s one study that I investigates face-to-face versus back-to-back communication. That’s one that sort of does it, but even that you could do having different people watch somebody front and back and see if there are differences.

But what is really nice about this line of work, both from an outreach and educational perspective and artistic perspective, is that it’s something that people find very intuitive–this question of what it means to be on the same wavelength. Framing it like that, you can go into things like what brainwaves actually are and how we can trace them to see if they are actually in sync.

Could you talk more about your most recent projects? 

For our most recent installation, “The Mutual Wave Machine,” we’re again measuring brainwave synchrony. So people sit inside this capsule and this visualization grows and shrinks as synchrony increases and you can actually see the neurofeedback. Then we gave the participants a questionnaire about their empathetic predisposition to see if there was a relationship with synchrony.

With this project, we wanted to get to at the dissociation between wanting to connect with someone and actually being able to connect with them. And then of feeling this loneliness that you can feel sometimes when you’re in the presence of another human being that’s much worse than if you’re alone. But sometimes you do connect, and it’s exhilarating! So that’s what we wanted to try to amplify here. We wanted people to feel a sense of frustration.

So you see these light patterns growing as you’re more synchronized, and there’s also this real-time video image of yourself embedded in the noise. So you’re looking at this weird white noise pattern, and you start engaging in eye contact with this noisy projection of yourself as you become more connected with this person. So that adds another layer in mirror imaging.

Mutual Wave Machine

Mutual Wave Machine, 2014. Photo by Sandra Kaas

How has working with artists affected your approach to or appreciation of your research in particular and science in general?

Right now I’m more of a person who wants to grab things from around me and try to see how that can be translated into questions that can be relevant in the lab and for the field. So you start to get these ideas for your own projects and inspiration for the kinds of questions that you want to ask in your own research. I really enjoy that part, and I think that is true of any interdisciplinary interaction, or even just talking to friends who aren’t in your field.

I also find it really interesting and really challenging to make these projects into really hybrid projects. Yes, I’m a scientist, but I’m also the artist on these projects in the sense that I have an idea of what I want them to be visually. So I need to work with people who have more experience in those fields to try to help me and my collaborators answer those scientific questions. And in those projects, it’s not entirely clear who’s what. We’re making projects that can be placed into either category, which is ultimately something that I think is really great.

What I’ve found about the art-science interface and working with artists is that the quest is ultimately the same: how do you ask a question in an original way where people are still interested in finding the answer to that question. But then in art projects, you can often leave it at that question, whereas in a science project you’re asked to provide an answer. Once I was on the radio and I said something like: “This is an ongoing investigation. We don’t know the answer and that’s actually really exciting!” And my friend said, that’s not the message you want to convey; that’s not exciting because people just want to know the answer to a scientific question. But that’s not science. The questions can often be just as exciting as the answers, and that’s not at all portrayed in the media.

There are also some very basic questions that lie at the heart of science that you’re not asking anymore because they’ve become so engrained in your way of thinking. The things that are very basic for us are not necessarily so for others. So sometimes people from outside of the sciences ask those questions or they challenge those questions. And it’s very hard, but it’s very important. Sometimes I’ve even noticed that there’s a gap in my own scientific thinking when I try to explain things to people who aren’t in my field. So they’ll ask these questions and I’ll realize actually maybe I should go back to my little diagram because there’s maybe a step that I skipped, or maybe it’s not actually working the way I thought it was. And that’s just by translating it into these terms for a layperson. So I think it’s really important for the advancement of science to keep yourself rooted in the outside world.

The research and works presented above have been made possible through the collaborative efforts of an incredible team of scientists and artists, credited below.

Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze

Marina Abramovic, Suzanne Dikker & Matthias Oostrik, and participants of the Annual Watermill Art & Science: Insights into Consciousness Workshop

Compatibility Racer

Lauren Silbert, Jennifer Silbert, Suzanne Dikker & Matthias Oostrik, Oliver Hess, Amanda Parkes

Mutual Brainwaves Lab

Suzanne Dikker & Matthias Oostrik // Special thanks to Michael Caruso, Katia Tsvetkova, and Jennifer Silbert

Mutual Wave Machine

Suzanne Dikker & Matthias Oostrik, Peter Burr, Diederik Schoorl, Matthew Patterson Curry, Oliver Hess

Meet Mosa Mack: Science Detective

Last week, students around the country—grades four through eight—were introduced to Mosa Mack: a hip + urban preteen with a passion for scientific exploration. Conceived by former Harlem science teacher Lissa Moses Johnson, Mosa Mack: Science Detective is an animated educational series following Mosa Mack + friends as they investigate science’s many mysteries. By promoting discussion + active interaction, the series aims to engage students in the scientific process of deductive reasoning, while exposing them to the thrill of inquiry borne out of natural curiosity. Amidst preparations for the National Day of Inquiry launching the series, Johnson was kind enough to carve out some time to share her inspiration + vision for this exciting project.


You have a background in biology and also taught science in Harlem. How did these experiences lead you towards promoting engagement in the sciences, and ultimately towards the creation of the series? 

I hope that all students have that “Aha!” moment in classes where they realize that a certain subject, or certain content that really connects with them. I can distinctly remember sitting in my college biology classes, and being astounded by and very appreciative of the information I was learning. I kept thinking, “Why isn’t everybody learning about this right now?” I was very inspired by my own classes, and when you take that inspiration and contrast it against student disengagement, there’s a really big disconnect.

When I thought about the inherent excitement of science and contrasted that with the problem of student disengagement, I saw a disconnect. Yes, there are things going on in the lives of students, and yes we need to approach education in a holistic way where we can provide support, but disengagement was a problem I knew I could help solve.

During my time teaching I realized the power of media in the classroom. The first time I put on a video, my students would be in this zone in which they were intensely focused on the subject. And as soon as we fully animated an episode and got that into the classroom, we saw amazing results. By framing science content with an animated mystery, the students were linking in background knowledge, they were laughing, and they were engaging in scientific thinking at a very high level.

1f4835_935bca8fdbc673867d83a210862ff013.jpg_srz_980_495_75_22_0.50_1.20_0So in preparation for the National Day of Inquiry, we showed the pilot at three different schools—one in Florida, one in Rochester, NY, and one in Brooklyn—to show how students are reacting. When I showed the first episode at the charter school here in Brooklyn, the students’ reactions were so genuine—and I was so excited about how much they loved it—that I wanted to get some video of student reactions at other schools.

Could you talk about the inspiration for the Mosa Mack character—a young, hip, and urban girl of color—and how she relates more broadly to the mission of the series?

We structured our mission very specifically: we want to expose all students to the thrill of learning, while empowering girls and children of color. So in the same way a Caucasian male can speak to all students, we want our female protagonist of color to speak to all students. I began realizing that the educational resources I had at my disposal offered very little diversity in terms of how scientists were portrayed. Just as there are very few women and people of color in the STEM field, there are very few women and people of color in educational resources.

Making animated science mysteries is something that will not fix the entire educational system, but it will fix an important hole in the system: it will get children excited about science, increase diversity in educational resources, and bring home the message that it’s okay, and even cool, to be curious.

Students—and adults even—like to hear, “You’re right.” It’s a really nice feeling. So part of our challenge is how to show students that when you’re investigating something, you’re not going to have somebody say, “You’re right.” What you will have is evidence to support your answer. And that’s what’s important. We want teachers to say, “That sounds reasonable. Now, what’s your evidence?”

Mosa Mack: Science Detective episodes aim to engage students in scientific thinking through interactive problem solving. How exactly will the interactive component work in the classroom?

Mosa-and-friendsI’ve had those classroom experiences where students can really rise to the occasion. If they really love a project, they can accomplish some amazing tasks. And that’s what I wanted to do—I wanted to set the bar high and leave it in their hands. However, we also didn’t want to leave the teachers with no support.

So the way we’ve incorporated the interaction is this: the animation is a short mystery, and then after the mystery, we invite students and teachers to solve the mystery together by going to our website and downloading a few options as supplementary resources to fit their needs. So they can do a classroom discussion, they can do a small group discussion, or they can also do individual worksheets. We wanted to balance giving teachers maximal flexibility while giving them structure and comfort working within a guide.

Where are you going next in the project, in terms of expanding your reach?

While we’re beginning in the classrooms, we want to open up the audience to include parents as well. The most effective homework pieces are the ones that get students to engage with people, interact with their families. So we see a huge potential in bringing these mysteries home as well. We also want to offer parents support.

We’re also now working with a high teacher in San Antonio—Anna Hill-Moses—who approached me saying she thought this project could work really well in her classroom. So the high school component of the project is now on the website and basically offers science students in high school the chance to write their own mystery. It’s a performance-based assessment that would allow them to teach students in the younger grades through this mystery. And it’s such a comprehensive assessment because writing a mystery is actually very hard. You have to start at the end and move backwards—plan everything out before the summary is created.

Mosa Mack: Science Detective is a web-based series of short, animated science mysteries to expose all students to the thrill of problem-solving. For more on the series be sure to visit the official website // Like on Facebook // Follow on Twitter!

Cognitive Resonance: Inspiring Young Minds with a Lab on Wheels

Tyler AltermanTyler Alterman is an artist-turned-cognitive-scientist and the founder of The Think Tank—a mobile cognitive science laboratory geared towards inspiring the next generation of scientists by providing young minds with a firsthand // hands-on look into the scientific process. Tyler’s initiative has already garnered attention from the likes of WIRED and Nature, but what I found most interesting was the path that led him to science, and ultimately towards developing this exciting project.

How exactly did you dream up the idea for a cognitive science lab on wheels?

About six months ago, over the winter, my mother sent me this New York Times article about this artist named Kim Holleman, who created “Trailer Park.” Instead of being a trailer in a park, it was a park in a trailer—this trailer just went around New York City and people could go inside and sit on a bench and listen to the sounds of fauna and indulge in flora. I thought that was pretty cool, but then I thought: “Why can’t cognitive neuroscience have something like that?” So I went to my favorite coffee shop—Café Reggio—where I’m friends with the waitresses, and I told them my idea. They said “Okay… but it needs to have a big glowing brain on top.”

And so The Think Tank was born!

What is the model for The Think Tank project?

The Think Tank:

Can a recycled bread truck topped with a glowing brain revolutionize science education?

It’s partially modeled after the BioBus, which is another mobile lab that’s been running for the last seven years. We want to emulate their approach, which is to bring students aboard the bus and integrate biology lessons with whatever they’re currently learning in the curriculum. So we hope to do a little bit of that, but The Think Tank will mostly be similar to  this amazing program called Lotto Lab, which is half an arts studio and half a public science lab. The founder, Beau Lotto, is a hard core perception researcher who’s recently teamed up with classrooms to guide kids through asking original questions in perception science. He then helps them in pursuing original experiments—running them + collecting the data—and finally writing them up in kids-speak with crayon diagrams. He even got one of these published in a serious biology journal—the kid’s work as is! I mean, he worked for a long time to find an outlet, but eventually he found a true, peer-reviewed journal to publish the kid’s work in, because it’s original work and because kids can do original work.

The Think Tank’s mission is to close the gender and race gap in science through experiential learning.” How do you aim to achieve this goal?

I hated science in high school because it wasn’t about asking original questions or exercising creativity. It was about passive intake. And it’s totally insidious because it gives you a picture of the world that is all mapped out—like there’s nothing new. It’s totally defeating the curiosity—this core part of science that’s just totally ignored. I wanted to be a scientist when I was a kid, and I probably would have continued that passion if I understood the way science actually works. But I ended up going into more creative disciplines because those were the ones that created more curiosity and exploration in my mind.

So The Think Tank’s mission is partly about cultivating curiosity. But also, more importantly, it’s about showing kids that they can do science. If you look up who scientists are, you’ll mostly see bearded old men—the data is there. If the brain is indeed a prediction machine and it runs off of expectations, there’s really just no Bayesian prior that I can become a scientist if I’m black or Latino or a woman. So what chances do you think you have of being a scientist unless you know you can actually do science?

But in low resource settings you’re not going to have neuroscience and psychology built into your curriculum. And it’s sad because these are the two subjects that everybody’s interested in. Everyone is fascinated by humans and it’s this ideal sort of gateway drug into the rest of science. But also in low resource settings, they don’t have the proper equipment to be teaching really good science. So the beauty of the truck is that it can go wherever the need is—low resources or high.

So you actually have an arts background, but ended up moving towards the sciences later in life despite your dissatisfaction with them in high school. What exactly sparked this transition?

Tyler remains active in the arts scene doing performance work with Crichton Atkinson's Nothing Space--an alternative arts space that hosts art performances, happenings, video open mic nights, painting shows, dance, theater, science talks, readings, and gives a platform to the ideas of today.

Tyler remains active in the arts scene, doing performance work with the Nothing Space, which hosts art performances, happenings, video open mic nights, painting shows, dance, theater, science talks, readings, and gives a platform to the ideas of today.

I used to be a graphics and communications designer. But in class, my professors would say things like: “Use red if you want to attract attention” or “Use an edge near a point if you want to add tension.” They would prescribe all these arbitrary sounding rules that ended up just being true—or at least most of them. But then I would ask: “Why should it be that red is something that attracts attention or the edge near the point adds tension?” And they never really had answers.

So that’s when I started turning to the psychology literature to tell me why certain things influence humans more than other things. I started listening to RadioLab and became totally obsessed. And I would take these long walks through Central Park listening to social psychology lectures through UCLA on iTunesU—I listened to two entire classes over the course of one week… I know Central Park super well now!

It was then I realized that I had stopped picking up the book about typography, and instead was picking up the book about unconscious influences on human behavior. I knew then that there was no other route—I was hooked!

Interested in supporting The Think Tank initiative? Don’t miss Brainbash 2013 CUNY’s Macaulay Honors College on June 18th from 6-9pm. For more exciting updates be sure to Like The Think Tank on Facebook and Follow them on Twitter!

An Experiment in [de]Constructive Interference

Adam J. Thompson, founding director of The Deconstructive Theatre Project [DTP], uses the theater as his laboratory space, giving literal meaning to the idea of experimental art. Dissatisfied by the idea of this very nebulous *inexplicable nature of art*, Adam uses the theater-making process to investigate why and how art has such a profound effect on us. To make art that moves in order to probe what it is about our brains that make us have such visceral, emotional responses to these experiences. Intrigued by the idea of science as a tool to create and understand theater, I sat down with Adam last week to talk more about The DTP’s latest project: The Orpheus Variations.

use this one

This last year, The DTP reimagined the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice in the Underworld as a story of memory and the past: “Our idea of the underworld is not that of a physical place that you go to, but it’s a place the comes up around you if you spend too much time in the past.” The Orpheus Variations tells the tale of a man packing up his house which has become impregnated with memory after his wife disappears. To explore Orpheus’s past—a world that at present only exists as memory—Adam and The DTP team have created a piece that acts much the way the brain behaves as it both processes and recalls an experience. Memory is stored in several different subregions of the brain, which comes as no surprise given that our brains break down our present sensorial experiences and process them in different compartments: the occipital lobe [sight], the temporal lobe [sound], the olfactory bulb [smell], and the parietal lobe [touch + taste].*  When we remember, the brain must piece together the sensory fragments of a particular experience to create that memory.

To design a piece reminiscent of memory, the Orpheus cast uses props, sound, and lighting to construct the constituent elements that become stitched together in real-time using live sound mixing + video feed. The result is a cohesive filmic narrative that is projected above the actors as they are synthesizing those elements. The audience is thus fed two different impetuses at once: the live composition of the film by the onstage actors + the film itself. “We tried to create a relationship between the live performance—the construction of things—as the experience, which is messy with things happening all the time and without grand narrative, and the film as the memory in which all the fragments are pulled together and framed as a cohesive whole.”


By revealing how our brains process experience, The DTP team have built a mirror for their own creative process—a physical // theatrical manifestation of what is happening in their own minds during the construction of the show: “I’m always looking for a way for process to exist inside of the product. In Orpheus you see the process happening simultaneously with the product; they become inextricably linked.” As a result, the viewer is able to choose their own adventure, following the narrative of the film, the journey of an individual actor, or the production of a particular filmic moment. By design, each performance contains an infinite number of possible journeys, creating an intentionally subjective, wholly viewer-dependent theater-going experience. After every show, Adam opens up the room for a talkback session, giving the audience members an opportunity to share their experiences in processing the piece: What specific elements engaged them most? How did they travel from process to product and back again? And perhaps [most interestingly to me] what can the individual’s unique processing of the same raw inputs—the same film, actors, sound, lighting—tell us about the subjectivity of consciousness as it relates to how we experience art?

The talkback also plays an integral role in the dtp’s mission to bring its audience into the creative process—to understand the science of making art. to further engage their community in the ongoing conversations that inform and complicate their work, the company also holds a three-part series called The dtpE: “Each event is thematically related to the piece so that when you come to see the final performance you have some insight into what the actors and creative team have been going through.”

I actually met adam at the last of the dtp’s community engagement events for The Orpheus Variations—Sense Memory—which explored how the worlds of sight, sound, and taste can conjure up past experiences. What excited me most about our conversation was that we—a scientist and an artist—were using the same sort of language and drawing from the same sorts of experiences to talk to one another about our work. By deconstructing both memory and theater in one elegant stroke, The DTP has merged the worlds of art and science, challenging traditional notions of what it means to be called ‘artist’ or ‘scientist’. Adam’s approach to exploring art is at its core an investigation of the most basic of scientific questions: the *why* and the *how* of a very specific phenomenon. “The science is what makes the experience of art interesting. Because it is the unknown. And art is the tool that I have to understand the science.”

* Of course, I should mention that I have left out the senses we don’t typically consider: sensing where our bodies are in space [proprioception], sensing heat [thermoception], sensing pain [nocioception], sensing the passage of time [chronoception], and sensing the body’s movement [equilibrioception].

Photographs by Mitch Dean.