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UMD Research Finds Human Brains Synchronize, Coordinate Under Collective Threat

October 12, 2017
Contacts: 

Sara Gavin, 301-405-1733

COLLEGE PARK, Md.—When humans encounter threatening scenarios such as natural disasters, pandemics or terrorism, their survival often depends on the ability to cooperate and coordinate with others. New research from the University of Maryland Department of Psychology reveals how humans actually synchronize brain waves with one another when they are exposed to these threats.

Photo of brain synchronyDistinguished University Professor Michele Gelfand and Post-doctoral Associate Yan Mu recruited students from Peking University in Beijing, China for the research. Participants were divided into pairs and asked to read articles outlining a specific societal threat, such as increased military pressure from Japan. Afterwards, the teams had to work together to complete a task-- counting time in unison without the aid of a watch or clock.

Using hyperscanning electroencephalography (EEG) to monitor the brain activities of the participants, researchers discovered the students’ high frequency gamma brain waves, which are related to fear and threat processing, became synchronized and helped to facilitate coordination.

“While past research has suggested that humans need to have a heightened ability to work together when under threat, we didn’t know what neurobiological mechanisms help to make this happen,” Gelfand said.

“We were excited to find out how societal threats become ‘embrained,’” Mu added.

Findings from the research were published in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. Gelfand and Mu say their study represents an important frontier in social neuroscience: moving beyond single-brain analysis to study the collective brain processes of human groups. It also adds to growing literature on how societal threat affects the tightness of human groups, originating with Gelfand’s work published in Science.

“Through new technologies such as EEG and fMRI, we can study the neural mechanisms underlying group processes like decision-making, negotiation, leadership and many other important phenomena,” Gelfand said.  

The research was funded by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Professor Shihui Han from Peking University is a study co-author.