You've probably experienced a "flow" state at some point in your life. This is when you are so focused on one task or activity that you feel a strong sense control over it. It also reduces awareness of the environment around you and minimizes the feeling of time passing.
You can also experience "team flow", such as when you play music together, compete in a sport team, or gaming. As we complete our tasks together, it seems like we have an intuitive understanding of each other.
A multinational team of neuroscientists believes they have discovered the neural states that are unique to team flow. These states differ from those we experience individually and the neural states associated with social interaction.
"In individual flow the brain blocks external stimuli that are not related to the task. The brain does not shut down external stimuli in team flow except information about the flow status of the teammate. "Hence, team brains begin to synchronize more," Mohammad Shehata (neuroscientist) told ScienceAlert.
Brains are composed of billions upon billions of neurons, which emit electrical output when they fire. These collective electrical signals can be aligned with certain frequencies.
Examples of frequencies include alpha, beta and gamma. These frequencies are measured in hertz, or cycles per second. These frequency bands are common when performing cognitive tasks. This is what the researchers were looking at.
Participants' neural activity was measured using an electroencephalography (EEG) machine, where electrodes are placed on the cranium, detecting activity happening within the brain.
The main phase of the experiment saw 38 participants being asked to play a game similar in style to Guitar Hero on an iPad. They were required to tap the screen in time with the song's rhythm and then pair up.
Researchers devised three conditions to test the hypothesis. In one condition, participants were separated from their partner using a black foamboard partition. This allowed them to collect data about brain activity when they were in an 'individual flow state'. The second was where people would play the game with a partner. However, the researchers would occasionally disrupt the flow by playing discordant music.
The third condition, called 'team flow', was where the participants played the game with their partner. To minimize cognitive load, they all had to use the same music sequence on their iPads for all tasks.
Researchers used two methods to ensure that participants were in a state of flow when they requested. Participants would have to rate subjective statements such as 'I felt in control during this trial' and 'How fast time flew during this trial' after they had completed the task in one condition.
Further, the research team wanted to obtain an objective measurement of participants' flow state. This is a notoriously difficult task in flow studies.
They write that they used the "intense task-related attention" and the reduced external awareness dimensions of flow and the well-known effects of selective attention upon the auditory evoked pot (AEP) to accomplish their goals.
"During each trial, task-irrelevant beeps were presented to the participants. The AEP's response to task-irrelevant beeps was weaker the more participants immersed themselves in the game.
What characteristics were present in the brains of participants during team flow?
Researchers discovered that the left middle temporal cortex had more beta and gamma brainwave activity. The brain's left middle temporal cortex is associated with information integration, key functions such as attention, memory and awareness. This area of the brain "consistently with higher team interactions, enhancing many flow dimensions", says the team.
What was remarkable about team flow was the way that participants' neural activity seemed to synchronize. Participants would perform the task together, and their brains would align in their neural oscillations (beta or gamma activity), creating an "hyper-cognitive" state.
Does this mean that brains can functionly connect through inter-brain synchroy? Although it's an interesting question, the authors caution that it is too early to answer.
They write that "Based on our findings we cannot conclude the high value integrated information correlates to a modified form consciousness, for example, 'team consciousness.'"
"Its consistency in neural synchrony raises interesting and empirical questions about inter-brain syncy, information integration, and altered state of consciousness."
The study was published by eNeuro.