You And Your Teammates’ Brains May Sync Up When You’re “In The Zone”

Team members' brain activity becomes synchronized when they are 'in the zone'. Image: REDPIXEL.PL/Shutterstock.com

When a group of people work together to achieve a goal, members sometimes enter into a shared cognitive state called "team flow", according to a new study in the journal eNeuro. By measuring the neural activity of collaborative pairs, the authors were able to identify a unique brainwave signature associated with this state, and found that teammates’ brains tend to become more synchronized when they are “in the zone”.

Previous studies have sought to understand the neural correlates of so-called "flow states", characterized by “intense task-related attention, effortless automatic action, a strong sense of control,” and reduced awareness of the external environment. However, the majority of this prior research has dealt exclusively with individual flow states. Little attention has been paid to the nature of this phenomenon in teams.

To investigate whether shared flow states are achievable, the study authors used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brainwaves of ten pairs of people while they played a music video game together on an iPad. Similar to popular games like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, the software presented players with a stream of musical notes and required them to tap the screen in time with a song.

During some runs, duos were able to play the game unimpeded, working together to perform the song. On other occasions, players were separated by a screen, allowing each player to enter a state of individual flow but precluding the possibility of team flow. At other times, players were allowed to play together, but the music presented to them was scrambled and jumbled up, thereby enabling teamwork but preventing either player from achieving a flow state.

In this way, the researchers were able to compare the neural correlates of teamwork, individual flow, and team flow. Analyzing their data, they observed a unique pattern of brain activity within the team flow state. Specifically, this involved an increase in beta and gamma brainwaves in a brain region called the middle temporal cortex.

Explaining the contribution of these brain waves to flow states, the authors write that “beta and gamma oscillations are involved in several cognitive functions, including attention, memory, and awareness.”

In addition, the researchers observed that “team flow enhances global inter-brain integrated information and neural synchrony,” as players’ brain activity became more aligned when they got into a shared rhythm.

Summing up, they explain that “our data indicate that team flow creates a hyper-cognitive state between the team members, as reflected in significantly higher inter-brain information integration and neural synchrony during team flow.” In spite of this, however, they insist that this does not constitute a “modified form of consciousness”, and state that their research does not provide evidence for “team consciousness”.

Regardless, the researchers believe that their findings can be used to create more effective models for measuring and enhancing team performance in a wide range of contexts, including sports, music, and corporate environments.

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