Online gaming and other types of online social interaction have become increasingly popular during the COVID pandemic. This trend is likely to continue due to increased remote working and investments in social technology.
Previous research has shown that people’s brains activate in a similar and simultaneous way during social interaction. Such inter-brain neural synchronization has been associated with empathy and cooperation in face-to-face situations. However, its role in online, remote interaction has remained unknown.
A new study conducted at the University of Helsinki investigated brainwave synchronization while pairs of subjects played a game in which they controlled a racing car together. The subjects were physically separated into two soundproof rooms. The researchers investigated the connection of synchronization with interaction and performance in the game.
Based on the results, inter-brain synchronization occurs during cooperative online gaming. Furthermore, increased synchrony in the alpha and gamma frequency bands is connected with better performance. The connection between performance and gamma-synchronization could be observed continuously over time.
“We were able to show that inter-brain phase synchronization can occur without the presence of the other person. This opens up a possibility to investigate the role of this social brain mechanism in online interaction,” says Doctoral Researcher Valtteri Wikström.
Our social brain has developed in face-to-face communication. Increased screen time has caused concern in many people, especially among parents, teachers, and legislators.
“If we can build interactive digital experiences which activate fundamental mechanisms of empathy, it can lead to better social relationships, well-being, and productivity online,” says Project Manager Katri Saarikivi.
Wikström suggests that measures of physiological synchrony and cooperative performance might be used to assess the quality of social interaction. Finding out which features of the interfaces enhance understanding and connectedness can drive the development in a positive direction.
“This study shows that inter-brain synchronization happens also during cooperative online gaming, and that it can be reliably measured. Developing aspects in games that lead to increased synchronization and empathy can have a positive impact even outside of gaming,” Wikström adds.
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