Archive for January, 2013

Playing music together: coordinated actions, attuned brains

January 21, 2013


The ability to coordinate our actions with someone else in real time is necessary for playing music together, dancing with others, playing sports, and a host of day-to-day social interactions.  But how do our brains mediate this social coordination?  Sänger et al (2012) begin to address this question by studying brain activity coordination in pairs of guitarists playing a duet.

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Playing musical instruments together well requires an ongoing listening and awareness of ourselves and each other, a close attunement and flexible responsiveness to each other, and a coordination of actions between people, which has been termed “interpersonal action coordination” Sänger et al (2011).  This kind of attunement and coordination is also necessary when people dance or play certain types of sports together, or engage in many other types of less formalized social interactions that require coordinated action and are important in daily life, e.g. having a conversation or carrying out a task with someone (Sänger et al 2011; Sebanz et al 2006).  How is this mental and emotional attunement and motor coordination between two people mediated by the coordinated functioning of their brains?

A recent study by Sänger et al (2012) addressed this question by measuring electrical brain activity in pairs of people playing guitar duets, and by looking for similarities in electrical activity between the two brains during the playing.  The study included 12 sets of two skilled guitarists playing together a Rondo by Christian Gottlieb Scheidler, which involves changes in tempo.  The participants played the music from memory while facing each other.  They played the piece together 60 times on one test day, and another 60 times on a second test day.  The electrical activity of each player’s brain was recorded during the testing using electroencephalography (EEG).  To maximize the possibility that similarities in brain electrical activity of the two players would be related to interpersonal action coordination, and not just to identical perception (e.g. hearing) or identical movements (guitar playing movement), the study was designed so that the two players played somewhat different parts of the music, though the authors acknowledge that the perceptions and motions of the players were still quite similar.  The study found that coherence in activity between the two brains was most pronounced at the times that put a high demand on coordination of playing, e.g. at the time of tempo setting, and that this activity coherence was found especially at the front and center of the two brains. Between-brain coherence was seen especially in slow rhythm brain waves called theta waves.

The authors infer that frontal and central areas of the brain are particularly important for interpersonal action coordination.  They argue that these data support their model that this type of real-time coordination of action requires brain representation of one’s own actions and the actions of one’s partners and the effects of those actions (Sänger et al 2011).  They point out that brain research on interpersonal action coordination is only beginning, and much more research is needed to clarify the particular brain circuits involved, because the methods used in this study do not localize the source of the brain activity very precisely.  In addition, to studying how between-brain coherence works in those skilled it coordinating their actions, it will also be important and clinically relevant to study what is different about the brain functioning of individuals who have more difficulty with activities that demand coordination of action with another individual.


Sänger J, Lindenberger U, Müller V (2011) Interactive brains, social minds.  Communicative and Integrative Biology 4(6):655-663.

Sänger J, Müller V, Lindenberger U (2012) Intra- and interbrain synchronization and network properties when playing guitar in duets.  Frontiers in Human Neuroscience 6:312.

Sebanz N, Bekkering H, Knoblich G (2006) Joint action:  bodies and minds moving together.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences 10(2):70-76.

©2011-2013 Edward S. Brodkin.  All Rights Reserved

Face-to-Face communication: neurobiology of a vanishing art?

January 15, 2013


Emails, texts, social media—electronic communications are amazingly efficient, but what we gain in speed and efficiency seems to come at a cost.  What do we sacrifice by having more and more communication through our computers and smart phones, and less and less face-to-face communication? Is there something distinctive on a neurobiological level about face-to-face communication relative to other types of communication?  A recent article by Jiang et al (2012) suggests that there is.  The authors point out that face-to-face communication is the most “multi-modal,” i.e. involves integrating the most and richest types of social sensory information, allowing us to hear the tone of voice and see the facial expression and body language of the person we’re communicating with in real time.  Also, face-to-face communication involves a continuous pacing of turn taking in the conversation, which is often lost in electronic communications.  Jiang et al (2012) find that a specific area of the brain—the left inferior frontal cortex, which is an important location of mirror neurons—undergoes synchronized activity in pairs of people specifically during back-and-forth, face-to-face communication, and not in other types of in-person communication (e.g. back-to-back communication or monologues).

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The authors used a method called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS)-based hyperscanning to measure the brain activity simultaneously in sets of two people involved in face-to-face conversations.  For more information on fNIRS, see Irani et al (2007) and Ferrari and Quaresima (2012).  The research participants were young adults in the Beijing, China area–10 same-sex pairs that already were acquainted with each other–that had conversations during scanning.  Each pair engaged in 5 different tasks while their brains were scanned:  resting state (eyes closed, relaxed mind, motionless—as baseline condition), face-to-face dialog, face-to-face monologue, back-to-back dialog, and back-to-back monologue.  The dialogs were about current news topics.  Participants were allowed to use spontaneous gestures and facial expressions during dialog.  The study found an increase in neural synchronization (synchronized brain activity levels in each member of the pair) in the left inferior frontal cortex (IFC) specifically during face-to-face dialog, but not in the other conditions.  Thus, the neural synchronization in the left IFC occurred in the pair not only when they could see and hear each other’s social cues, but also when they engaged in turn taking (a dialog rather than a monologue).  The left IFC is a hub of the mirror neuron system.  The authors conclude that face-to-face communication is distinctive, in part, because it activates neural circuits differently from other types of communication.  For more on the subject of neural synchronization during social interactions, and the notion of “brain-to-brain coupling,” including the role of this  phenomenon in social behavior development and language development, see a recent review by Hasson et al (2012).


Ferrari M, Quaresima V (2012) A brief review on the history of human functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) development and fields of application.  Neuroimage 63(2):921-935.

Hasson U, Ghazanfar AA, Galantucci B, Garrod S, Keysers C (2012) Brain-to-brain coupling:  a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world.  Trends Cogn Sci 16(2):114-121.

Irani F, Platek SM, Bunce S, Ruocco AC, Chute D (2007) Functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS):  an emerging neuroimaging technology with important applications for the study of brain disorders.  Clin Neuropsychol 21(1):9-37.

Jiang J, Dai B, Peng D, Zhu C, Liu L, Lu C (2012) Neural synchronization during face-to-face communication.  Journal of Neuroscience 32(45):16064-16069.

©2011-2013 Edward S. Brodkin.  All Rights Reserved

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