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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