Attentive learners’ brains are on the same wavelength

Why social dynamics in the classroom matter for learning
Suzanne Dikker. Image: Sy Abudu / NYU
Suzanne Dikker. Image: Sy Abudu / NYU

Suzanne Dikker’s research combines cognitive neuroscience with education and performance art. In this interview, she explains how the brainwaves of children in a classroom become synchronized and discusses the connection between social interaction and learning. She also talks about how crowdsourcing experiments can take neuroscience into the real world.

Sabine Gysi: At first, I thought that the idea of two or more brains “being on the same wavelength” sounded like a neuromyth ­– but then I discovered your report on brain-to-brain synchrony. Please tell our blog’s readers what you have learned!

Suzanne Dikker: When we talk about “brains being on the same wavelength,” we’re not talking about telepathy. It’s not that your brainwaves and my brainwaves flow through the air, meet, and magically align with each other. What I mean by “synchrony” is that when two or more people are looking at or listening to the same thing, their brainwaves (as measured with electroencephalography, or EEG) will start to synchronize.

If someone is talking, for example, and you’re paying attention to what is being said and to the rhythm and structure of the person’s speech, your brainwaves will lock on to that rhythm, “riding the waves” of what the speaker is saying.

“The extent to which your brainwaves are going to sync up with people around you depends on how much you are engaged with your environment.”

If the students in a classroom are paying close attention to the teacher, their brainwaves are going to tightly lock on to that speech rhythm, so they will be very similar. What my colleagues and I have found is that the extent to which people’s brainwaves synchronize with a stimulus or with each other is predicted by a number of factors: how much the kids like each other, how much they like the teacher, how engaged and how focused they are, and so on. This is our main finding: The extent to which your brainwaves are going to sync up with people around you depends on how much you are engaged with your environment.

SG: In other words, brain-to-brain synchrony between students predicts class engagement and social dynamics, both of which are important for learning. I recently spoke with two researchers and BOLD contributors who point out that “curiosity is contagious.” Is class engagement contagious as well? And are these brain activities really showing a process of “contagion”?

SD: That’s a good comparison. We need to do more research on this, but there is some support in our data for the idea of social contagion. For example, we have found that how much people like each other matters for engagement.

We conducted an experiment with a class of students who had already spent several years together. They took their seats, and just before class started, we asked them to look at the person next to them for two minutes. Then the class started, and they listened to the teacher, watched a video, and so on. We found that the kids who had done this “warm-up” together were more in sync with each other during class than with their other classmates. Thus, social interaction before actual learning takes place could give social contagion a boost.

“Social interaction before actual learning takes place could give social contagion a boost.”

SG: Teaching style seems to play a very important role in stimulating learners’ engagement. What would you like teachers to take away from your research?

SD: It’s too early for takeaways. In our most recent study, we divided teaching styles into three main categories: lecture, video-based, and group discussion. But teachers are well aware that there are much more subtle differences. In further research, my colleagues and I plan to ask the following questions: Are there different kinds of tools that teachers can use to boost student learning? And can we determine what works and what doesn’t by continuously measuring the synchrony of brain waves?

We have achieved some amazing results, but they are not yet specific and granular enough to distinguish teaching styles. I want to avoid jumping to conclusions.

SG: You conduct crowdsourcing neuroscience experiments using interactive brain installations. What role does this method play in your research?

SD: I want to take neuroscience out of the laboratory and into the real world. For decades, we’ve studied our social brain in a very non-social, unnatural environment; we use MRI machines to scan people’s brains and hypothesize that findings from those experiments can tell us something about real-world behavior. But we don’t actually know to what extent that is an accurate assumption. One obvious way to test this is to see whether we get similar findings in non-laboratory contexts. Collaborations with art and science allow us to do that.

“We use MRI machines to scan people’s brains and hypothesize that findings from those experiments can tell us something about real-world behavior.”

Our work also has an educational component: By building interactive art installations, we can engage the public in the scientific process in a very intuitive way.

We just received funding from the National Institutes of Health to create a full-fledged neuroscience curriculum for high schools called BrainWaves. We are particularly interested in reaching out to high school students who don’t feel comfortable with science and math. We want to give them a fun and intuitive way to engage with these subjects, while at the same time conducting our research. Perhaps we can even motivate them to go on to study neuroscience or psychology!

SG: Do you expect to see many similar research projects in the future?

SD: Yes, I think so. Everywhere around us, researchers are beginning to engage in this kind of research; it makes sense, since the necessary technology is becoming increasingly available. The challenge is to do it in a scientifically rigorous way. For example, the data quality in our study was very low, so it’s important to be cautious when drawing conclusions. And you will probably have to go back into the laboratory to confirm your results or to learn more about the causes of what you have observed in the real world.

After completing her PhD in Linguistics at New York University, Suzanne Dikker received postdoctoral training at the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology and New York University. She is currently a research scientist at New York University (Department of Psychology) and at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.

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