In the Star Trek universe, Vulcans would sometimes bust out one of their most impressive abilities: the mind meld. In this maneuver, the Vulcan would form a mental bond with someone else, and the two would sync up to the point that they basically shared one consciousness. Researchers at the Basque Centre on Cognition, Brain, and Language (BCBL) in Spain have now shown that humans do something a bit similar – just by having a conversation.
While the team there didn't quite uncover our latent psychic abilities, they did discover that when two people hold a conversation, their brain waves synchronize.
To carry out its research, the team placed pairs of people on either side of an opaque partition and had them hold a scripted conversation. The people in the study were strangers to each other and they were all same-sex pairs. They also took turns as both the listener and the speaker.
All the participants were connected to electroencephalography (EEG) machines which monitored the electrical activity of their brains through electrodes placed on their scalps. Sure enough, once the conversation began, the researchers were able to see that the pair's brainwaves fell in synch. The effect was so pronounced, in fact, that the researchers say they can now actually tell if two people are communicating simply by looking at their EEG results.
"To be able to know if two people are talking between themselves, and even what they are talking about, based solely on their brain activity is something truly marvelous," said team member Jon Andoni Duñabeitia. "Now we can explore new applications, which are highly useful in special communicative contexts, such as in the case of people who have difficulties with communication."
Indeed, the researchers feel that their work can have implications in a variety of fields including psychiatry, education, psychology and sociology. They feel it might be especially helpful in overcoming daily communication problems in our increasingly interconnected world.
"Problems with communication occur every day," said team member Alejandro Pérez. "We are planning to get the most out of this discovery of interbrain synchronization with the goal of improving communication."
To that end, the next step for the researchers is to conduct a similar study on people holding a conversation in a non-native language to see if the neural synchrony effect repeats itself.
While we might never achieve Vulcan-like psychic abilities, studies like these are indeed slowly unraveling the brain's complex role in our ability to communicate.
A technique known as transcranial magnetic stimulation, which involves the application of a painless magnetic coil to the back of the skull has already been shown to be effective in direct brain-to-brain communication, as well as allowing test subjects the seemingly superhuman ability of playing a video game without even looking at the screen.
Last year, researchers at the University of California, Berkeley revealed the way in which the brain stores words, creating a kind of neurological thesaurus of our grey matter. And earlier this year, researchers at Imperial College London used low-voltage electricity to synch up different brain regions, improving memory and raising the hope of treating neurological disorders.
So while we might not be Vulcan, research breakthroughs like these will certainly help us live long and prosper.
The team's has been published in the journal Scientific Reports.