Brains learning together act the same

When students are focused, their brainwaves sync up


Students paying attention in class may have similar brain electrical patterns, a new study shows.


A teacher standing at the front of the classroom may see all of the students facing her. But are their fixed stares the look of rapt attention? Or the glassy-eyed gaze of daydreaming? Maybe the teacher should try reading their brain activity to find out. When a class full of students is paying attention, their brains sync up, a new study shows. For the first time, researchers took the science of brain activity out of the lab and into the classroom. And they found that when students are focused — on the material or on each other — their brainwaves tend to develop similar patterns.  

Scientists can’t see directly into a head to tell if someone is paying attention. But they can eavesdrop as brain cells — called neurons — pass information to each other. Each neuron fires with a tiny electrical pulse too small to detect outside the skull. But when many neurons fire together, there will be an electrical change big enough to measure on the skin covering the head. Scientists can track them using a technique known as EEG. That’s short for electroencephalography (Ee-LEK-troh-en-seff-uh-LAAG-rah-fee).

EEG uses a cap embedded with electrodes. It holds those electrodes so that they make contact with the skin all around the head. This lets scientists observe brainwaves as someone moves, talks or learns.

“It’s like microphones on your head at different locations trying to listen in on your brain,” explains Suzanne Dikker. She works at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. As a cognitive neuroscientist, she studies how the brain performs activities, such as learning.

Many scientists have used EEG headsets to record brain patterns as two people talk or learn from each other. When they do, their brainwaves show synchrony. That means they develop a similar pattern.  

It’s not mind reading, says Chris Frith, who was not involved in the study. A cognitive neuroscientist, he works in England at University College London. “In a sense,” he says, “when you’re interacting with someone, you are trying to think about what they’re thinking about.” If two people are focused on the same topic, he reasons, “there must be a similarity in [their] brains.” Two people focused on the same thing may well show similar brain activity.

Dikker and other researchers had seen one-on-one brain synchrony in the lab. But people do things in groups, not just in pairs. Dikker wanted to know if the same thing happened in larger groups — and in the real world.

To find out, she and her colleagues took their EEG headsets out of the lab and into the classroom. They went to a private school in New York City. There, they asked 12 high school students to wear the headsets during their science class for an entire semester.

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Thinking caps on!  from Micah Schaffer on Vimeo.

These students listened to a teacher lecture or read to them from a textbook. They also watched videos and participated in class discussions. The students reported how much they liked each type of activity.

The whole time, Dikker and her colleagues sat in the corner of the classroom, recording their brainwaves. At the beginning, it felt pretty strange for the students, Dikker admits. “But they quickly got used to the setup.”

Students said that they preferred group discussions and watching videos more than being lectured or read to. And their brainwaves backed that up.

The kids zoned out more during lectures and readings. As their minds wandered, their brains showed different activity patterns from each other. Their brains were more in sync during videos and group discussions than during lectures and reading. That appears to mean their brains were more engaged with the material during videos and discussions. But it doesn’t necessarily mean they learned more at those times. “We don’t want to overdraw conclusions,” Dikker says.

She and her colleagues published their findings May 8 in the journal Current Biology.

Meeting of the minds

The researchers also had pairs of students look each other in the eye for two minutes before class. Later, during class, those pairs showed especially similar brainwave patterns. This means students who interacted before class tended to focus on the material together.

Dikker thinks synced brainwaves mean students were paying attention to the same thing — the class material. “The more attentive you are, the more you are locking on to what I’m saying,” she concludes. “Hanging on [my] every word is a fairly good way of describing it.”

Taking this research out of the lab was “an extraordinary achievement,” Frith says. “They got the data from lots of brains simultaneously.” The scientists managed to study “a situation where brains are in the same state and paying attention to the same thing,” he notes.

It’s the first time scientists have brought EEG studies into a group setting, Dikker says. And her team’s results look a lot like the EEG data from tests with only two people. This could mean that what they see in the lab may translate to the real world. Or at least to the real classroom.

This new study confirms EEGs will work in the classroom, Dikker says. But she likens was they did to “going in with a sledgehammer.” Now that Dikker knows it’s possible to use this technology outside the lab, she can do more studies to better tease out what brain synchrony really means for learning.

For now, Dikker wants to bring her EEG headsets to more classrooms for students themselves to use. As part of the study, she and her colleagues let the students design their own EEG experiments. The students could have used the headsets to study lots of things. But “they all did brain-synchrony research,” she laughs. After a whole semester in the study together, it was hard not to stay in sync.

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