Learning Lab

Synchronize Your Thinking

By Amy Brann

Synchronize Your Thinking. 

There is something quite magical about seeing a team of swimmers in a pool synchronise their body movements to music. Or a group of dancers, flawlessly move on stage as if they were one person, rather than many (just think of Riverdance). But it isn’t just their bodies that are working together. It is their minds too.

On the same wavelength?

Many of us have probably experienced some kind of synchronised thinking with another person before. An ability to finish someone else’s sentences before they do. To see eye to eye on new ideas.

All quite useful when you are trying to team build. Form a successful relationship with a colleague or client. Collaborate.

But is “being on the same wavelength” just something that people say in passing? Is there more to it than just hearsay?

Lining up your brain waves.

Well, there is a study just out from researchers at New York University, and published in the journal Current Biology, which explores the concept of “synchronized thinking”. And they found that being on the same wavelength as someone else actually has some biological truth to it.

What’s more,  you can see it happening in real time in the brain.

Because the researchers decided to do a rather wacky thing.  They used mobile EEG – a form of portable brain imaging – to simultaneously measure the brain waves from a group of people (12 to be precise) in a real world setting, whilst they were working together on a shared task (a bit different from the traditional approach of just measuring from a people individually in a sterile research lab!).

What that meant was that they were able to align up everyone’s brain waves according to what was going on around them, the task they were working on. And by doing this they could then see how the neural activity across the group of people related to each other. Whether they were thinking “on the same wavelength”.

And guess what? They were. Their brain waves lined up.

And, although the study was done in a high school classroom, the insights are relevant to a broader audience. To any situation where people are working together on a shared task.

No focus. No synchrony.

But they also found that the degree to which people’s brain waves became synchronized wasn’t always the same. It depended on how engaged the individuals were on the task. The more engaged and focused, the more synchronized they became.

So mental focus matters.

If you are not focused during that team meeting, that working exercise, then you probably don’t stand much of a chance in becoming mentally aligned with your colleagues. Your brain really is elsewhere. Not “joining in”.

Don’t see eye to eye?

And the researchers found something else too. That synchrony of thinking depends on how much face-to-face time, how much eye contact, you have previously had with the person you are collaborating with. A kind of measure of social closeness.

And the “closer” you feel to the person you are working with, the abler you are to synchronize your thinking.

No wonder it is often quite difficult to find common mental ground with someone you have just met. Or with someone who you don’t see eye to eye with. Or even with someone on the other side of the room (because physical proximity matters too).

Same place, same time.

The scientists who conducted this study also tried to work out why it is that people align their thinking. What is it about their underlying brain processes which make them think in synchrony? What holds it all together?

And their answer was attention. More specifically, the fact that you notice the same things. At the same time. With the same emphasis. Joint attention.

And by jointly attending, by both directing your focus, in the same way, your brain waves become aligned together.

Collaborate and connect.

So next time you go into that meeting. Or sit down with a colleague or client to work together on something. Take a moment to get your brains in sync. Make eye contact. Ensure you are both focusing on the same page. That you have the same agenda.

It will end up being both more enjoyable, and more productive.

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