At some point in life, you have probably enjoyed a ‘flow’ state – when you’re so intensely focused on a task or activity, you experience a strong sense of control, a reduced awareness of your environment and yourself, and a minimized sense of the passing of time.
It’s also possible to experience ‘team flow’, such as when playing music together, competing in a sports team, or perhaps gaming. In such a state, we seem to have an intuitive understanding with others as we jointly complete the task at hand.
An international team of neuroscientists now thinks they have uncovered the neural states unique to team flow, and it appears that these differ both from the flow states we experience as individuals, and from the neural states typically associated with social interaction.
“In individual flow, the brain shuts down external stimuli that are unrelated to the task. In team flow, the brain still shuts down external stimuli except for the information about the flow state of the teammate. Hence, the team brains start to synchronize more,” neuroscientist Mohammad Shehata, who co-authored the study, told ScienceAlert.
Our brains are made up of billions of neurons that give off electrical output when they fire, and these collective electrical signals can be aligned to certain frequencies.
Some examples of the frequencies are alpha, beta, and gamma, which are measured in hertz (Hz) or cycles per second. Typically, these different frequency bands are present when we perform certain cognitive tasks, and this is the type of neural activity the researchers were investigating.
Participants’ neural activity was measured using an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, where electrodes are placed on the cranium, detecting activity happening within the brain.
In the main phase of the experiment, 38 participants were asked to play a game similar to Guitar Hero on an iPad, where you tap on the screen in sync with the rhythm-based cues of a song; they worked in pairs, and the researchers prioritized pairing up two friends wherever possible.
The research team devised three conditions for the trial; in one, participants played the game while separated from their partner by a black foam-board partition, giving the researchers data on the brain when in an ‘individual’ flow state. In the second condition, people played the game with a partner, but every now and again the researchers would play discordant music to disrupt the flow.
In the third condition, labeled as ‘team flow’, the participants played the game together with their partner. The music sequence they had to play on their iPads was identical in all tasks, to minimize any cognitive load.
To ensure participants actually entered a state of flow in the desired conditions, researchers employed two techniques. On a subjective level, after completing the task in one condition, participants would then have to rate certain statements like ‘I felt in control while playing this trial’, and ‘How time flies during this trial’.
Going further, the research team also wanted to gain an objective measure of the participants’ flow state, something that’s notoriously difficult in flow studies.
“We utilized the intense task-related attention and the reduced sense of external awareness dimensions of flow, and the well-known effect of selective attention on the auditory evoked potential (AEP),” they write in the study.
“During each trial, we presented task-irrelevant beeps to the participants. The more the participants were immersed in the game, the weaker the strength of the AEP in response to the task-irrelevant beeps.”
So what characterized the brains of participants when they were in a state of team flow?
Researchers found increased beta and gamma brain wave activity in the left middle temporal cortex. This region of the brain is typically associated with information integration and key functions like attention, memory, and awareness, which are “consistent with higher team interactions and enhancing many flow dimensions”, the team writes.
However, what was unique about team flow, was that participants’ neural activity appeared to synchronize. When participants were performing the task as a unit, their brains would mutually align in their neural oscillations (beta and gamma activity), creating a “hyper-cognitive state between the team members”.
If brains can be functionally connected through inter-brain synchrony, does this mean it is not only our brain that contributes to our consciousness? It’s a curious question, but the authors warn it is much too soon to tell.
“Based on our findings, we cannot conclude that the high value of integrated information correlates with a modified form of consciousness, for instance, ‘team consciousness’,” they write.
“Its consistency with neural synchrony raises intriguing and empirical questions related to inter-brain synchrony and information integration and altered state of consciousness.”
The study was published in the journal eNeuro.