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“In Sync” is Not Just a Metaphor Anymore March 20, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Art and Music, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Philosophy, Science.
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Dwight has posted about Denmark, so I guess it’s my turn to post about music! According to the Discover Magazine website,

Two guitarists playing the same melody together don’t just tap their feet to the same beat to stay coordinated: New research shows that their brains sync up, producing brain patterns that are virtually identical. In the study, researchers had pairs of professional guitar players play short melodies together while their neural activity was monitored with an electroencephalogram (EEG). Researchers found that the synchrony kicked in when the lead guitar player marked the tempo and indicated when to begin. As the pair continued playing, their brain waves oscillated in synchrony from the same brain regions. This suggests that the same sets of neurons were at work, and at the same rhythm, in both players [New Scientist].

The study’s implications are profound; not only do we now have evidence of musical activities creating synchronicity in brain waves, it extends to other rhytmic activities, and even to the entire field of sympathetic communication:

In a common sense result, researchers found coordination in the parts of the brain that control motor activity. But they also saw synchronized activity in regions that are linked with “theory of mind” – the recognition that other creatures think and act independently – as well as brain “mirror” systems that enable people to subconsciously mimic the actions and feelings of others. The researchers think these areas may have been activated to increase the bonding and synchrony between the players in the shared task of playing the duet [New Scientist].

So maybe there’s a true physical component when lovers feel “in sync,” when twins and/or friends think of the same things at the same time, and when (imagine this) there is a collective Aha-experience going on in the classroom. Take this further, and you might get the explanation for group hysteria (just watched A Hard Day’s Night, again), as well as collective religious experiences. Now I want to know if all social animals have similar brain synchronizations!



1. Dwight Furrow - March 21, 2009

This is interesting though not surprising. The musicians intend to play the same melody so each is likely taking an active interest in what the other is doing, which would implicate the “theory of mind” and mirror neurons. It would be interesting to know if the same brain wave patterns were produced if the musicians had the tempo set my a metronome and they were reading the melody from a score.

As to “Now I want to know if all social animals have similar brain synchronizations!”

Probably not with regard to music. My son’s dog is utterly indifferent to my guitar playing. Of course, it could be that his aesthetic standards are simply higher than anything I can achieve.

2. Huan - March 21, 2009

Very interesting find! There could be a lot of follow-up experiments couldn’t there? For example we could put them in different rooms and simply have them play together through high quality communication devices, or have them face totally away from each other. I thought in order for mirror neurons to mimic the subjective experiences of other beings, we’d have to be perceiving them in some fashion, is music a medium of perception then?

This maybe pseudo territory, but I can’t help but link this with quantum theory! What if these mirror neurons act like entangled quantum particles in some odd way? That would mean that once they are “entangled”, there’s no further need for direct perception at all! This would make sense of the twin connection and “in sync” lovers and other freaky synced up social phenomenons.

3. Paul Moloney - March 21, 2009

I fully intend to watch “A Hard Days Night” again. It’s not every movie that has a character that has a “clean” grandfather, very clean looking grandfather. I first saw the movie in the theater when I was a kid staying with my grandmother for the weekend. Granny lived in Venice Beach. Back then the biggest problem in Venice Beach seemed to be the winos getting into fights. Granny told me, when I was a kid, that the people in the neighborhood weren’t bad, they were poor. Granny lived in an apartment on Venice Blvd. that was across the street from the police and fire stations. When the hippie era came along, granny told me that she saw the police hiding behind cars and throwing eggs at the hippies as they went by.

4. Nina Rosenstand - March 24, 2009

Oh, by the way, I also want to know if the synchronicity affects the pleasure center of the brain! That would account for a number of human group actions that might otherwise seem unwise or even inexplicable. Or explain why some experiences are extra special when they’re shared. But as philosophers know (unless they are eliminative materialists), charting brain waves just doesn’t give us the whole story–we still need to add the importance of phenomenological intentionality: Our experience takes place in a world we are in the middle of, as physical beings, with a sense of ontological and social context. So what we get out of the synchronicity experience is at least as important as the brain phenomenon itself.

5. Nina Rosenstand - March 25, 2009

Just took the trouble to actually read the New Scientist article (just follow the link above). Ask and ye shall receive… Here’s the answer to my query:

“There’s evidence that the [temporal and parietal regions] could be activated during music perception and also during music production, as well as throughout pleasant feelings induced by the music,” they conclude.

Pleasant feelings! I thought so. Let’s see who takes this theory and runs with it—philosophers, psychologists, or sociologists!
And as for Dwight’s query,

Before the guitarists synchronised their actions, says lead researcher, Ulman Lindenberger of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, their brain waves were already becoming coupled.

Here is a link to the original study:

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