Suzanne Dikker’s research merges cognitive neuroscience, education, and performance art in an effort to understand the brain basis of human social interaction. We sat with her to discuss her Mutual Wave Machine, the intersection of science and art, and the means in which two people can match the rhythms of their brain waves. Read the full interview below, and see if you can “get on the same wavelength” with someone else at OPUS 1 on October 7th.
Project: Mutual Wave Machine
How do you go about teaching others about your work?
It’s pretty natural because we exhibit at different kinds of venues ranging from museum contexts to schools. Every single time there’s always an education component to it. There’s a moment whatever you do with EEG when you have to set up the technology, and we use that time to educate people about neuroscience in general. It’s a five-minute crash course but it’s very powerful because by showing people EEG waves, you tell them in an intuitive way that we’re not dealing with mind reading devices and can explain what kind of research questions you’re asking. We really try to make work that fits at the intersection of art, science and education, and also has this outreach component. Because if you look at science outreach and education, a lot of it is focused on well-established facts, while science is actually mostly about asking questions and then finding out that the answer is only generating more questions. So it’s not that science is an answer machine where art is a question machine.
Why is a neuroscientist using sculpture and audiovisual tech to demonstrate her findings? How do these fit?
Part of it is personal because I want to be everything and do stuff that I think is cool. But from a scientific outreach standpoint, if you’re going to teach someone about neuroscience there’s no better way than giving them an experience that speaks to their imagination. Especially when you talk about questions like, “What actually makes us connect to other people?” Those questions in and of themselves speak to people’s imagination. Seeing your own brain speaks to people’s imagination. And we also use these installations as a tool to conduct neuroscience research outside of the laboratory environment. We use the lab as a model for the real world. We put people in machines and show them pictures of abstracted features of the real world. And social interaction is by definition not natural if you’re in a lab. So what we’re trying to do is see if we can actually record data from a semi-real world environment where people are interacting face to face with each other. With technology developing that makes EEG research more accessible, cheaper, and more wearable, we’re trying to see to what extent we can also get scientifically rigorous data. We’ve used the MWM as a way to generate data from thousands of people. We’ve collected from over 3,000 people over the past couple years which allowed us to do something along the lines of crowdsourced neuroscience research.
Since I’m a scientist by training, it’s extra interesting and important that these projects have that hybrid nature. But we won’t actually be collecting data at OPUS 1. We’re still going to ask people some questions before and after, because there are always open questions about what it does to people’s relationships to face each other for 10 minutes.
Can you share with us some of your findings from your research into brain-to-brain synchrony? Are some people ‘better’ at it than others?
We’re trying to ask what factors affect how people’s brain waves synchronize when interacting with each other, and to what extent. These are factors like emotional states (whether they’re happy or sad, or focused), personality traits, and people’s relationship with each other. And do these things change? Are you happier after interacting with the other person? Are you brains more in synch toward the end of the experience? So we found that those kinds of factors indeed affect synchrony. We found that people who are more anxious, more self-focused tend to synchronize less with the people in front of them. We also found that pairs of people who already know each other and feel connected also synchronize more with each other than those who report lower connection to the person in front of them. Another predictor is focus, which would also explain the anxiety result. If you’re more focused on yourself and less on the environment, then you don’t have the “mental space” to focus on the other person, which is what makes you able to synchronize. You have to be able to observe and engage with the person in front of you.
Is the ability to read the other person – understanding their emotional state, putting yourself in their shoes – what causes synchrony?
We’re thinking about it more along the lines of measuring the rhythm of brain waves. The MWM shows rhythmic synchrony in brain activity. So what we think is going on is that you’re entraining with your visual environment, which includes the other person. You’re picking up on cues that entrain your brain rhythms to what the other person is saying or doing, which then allows you to decompose the information better. You’re literally riding along on whatever the other person is doing and that makes it easier for you to perceive and comprehend what’s going on.
So it’s partially what the other person is doing, and it’s also partially the projected visualizations?
We use low and high visualization and we sometimes give people information about what the visualizations mean and sometimes we don’t. You’re definitely going to entrain with what the visualizations are giving you but what’s more interesting is what remains above and beyond that. If your relationship is better you’re going to connect more to each other in spite of the fact that you’re already synchronizing because of the visuals on your face.
How does MWM work?
We only project visualizations of the synchrony between two people – the visualizations are mirrored, so it’s always the sum of the two of you. You’re in an egg-like dome together. It’s completely dark when there’s no synchrony, and the light expands when there is more synchrony between the two people. The light comes from behind the other person’s head and expands until it merges into the other, so you become “one” if you’re fully synchronized. In terms of what it feels like, a lot of people aren’t used to sitting so close in front of someone for a long duration of time. We also ask them to minimize movement so a lot of people resort to eye contact or holding hands, something fairly intimate that makes you feel kind of vulnerable. It opens people up. The visualizations are fairly stark so it has something meditative to it as well. People either love it or hate it. Luckily most people love it. It changes people’s relationships a little bit just by virtue of being together, so we find it extra exciting if people do it who are strangers. Because if two strangers achieve synchrony, that’s stronger than to do it with someone you already know.
So you might have some married couples a few years down the line who say they who met in the MWM!
We have a disclaimer that tells people not to take anything that happens in there as an indication that they should be married or divorced. I don’t know about anyone getting married who met in the MWM, but it would obviously be fantastic.
Why are you interested in connectedness? Is it a political project? Is there something we can get out of connectedness?
I started studying sociolinguistics and bilingualism and, the way things go, ended up studying the brain and how our brains process things quicker when we can anticipate what others are going to say or do. We’re very efficient prediction machines, our bodies and our brains. There’s research out there that aims to explain how that works, and why brain areas that are typically only focused on whether something is light or dark/loud or quiet, are also sensitive to weird things that people say. And the research gives a predictive explanation to it. So, it looks like prediction can explain a lot about how we can process language so fast. I started asking myself if the ability to predict what others will say is also a tool that helps us connect to each other and makes conversation run more smoothly. In the end how smoothly a conversation goes is one of the best predictors of how we experience that conversation, where smoothness can be explained rhythmically. So if you have a long distance conversation with delays on the phone line, you’re messing with that synchrony, that connectedness. So my research moved into that field, because that was simply my trajectory. It’s more of a historical thing, of what questions can I ask next based on the research that I’ve done. But obviously, this all generates questions that are essentially political in nature. That
comes not necessarily from us but from other people who see things in our project. In the past years we’ve seen other projects come out that seek to create sociopolitical connectedness. We’ve been approached by organizations that wanted to use the MWM to bring together players from different parties – for example someone who works in policy and someone who is an asylum speaker. They want to have them first look at each other and experience the MWM, and then have a conversation. Mindfulness meditation training research also shows that what works best in enhancing people’s pro-social behavior is sitting in front of each other in real time, in real life, and interacting with each other and asking the question “what makes us connect to each other?”
How has biosensing changed what it means to make art?
EEG still has a cool factor to it, so people are very accepting of any kind of art that involves brain waves. But that’s not going to last very long because the technology will normalize and become more accessible, and people will be more critical of the actual artistic value of the art created using EEG. Fairly soon you won’t be able to just show someone a brainwave and call it art, unless you have a very good story around it. I think whenever a cool new technology comes along people start being not so critical of what the actual artistic value is, they just love engaging with it because of the wow factor.
EEG/ECoG/EKG/EMG have all sorts of uses for HCI – in art, medicine, and war – which some people see it as one step toward the singularity. What do you think the role of art will be in a transhuman world? What will art look like?
I don’t know what art will look like but I do think that art has a really big role in the kind of research that I do. We started as a collaboration with Marina Abramovic, doing hyperscanning research in a museum. The technological and artistic questions around connectedness that arose from that work really gave me a head start in the scientific field. Working on this art-science collaboration really helped me to then be able to do out-of-the-box scientific projects and, without me realizing it, had solved some problems that people had not been able to solve because the science and art communities live in such separate worlds. I think that is a very important role that art will play.
That makes me think of recent efforts to push STEAM over STEM, and of getting women and girls involved in the hard sciences.
Just before dusk at OPUS 1 we’ll have another little mirror feedback game where people can try to synch up their brainwaves. We use that as part of a curriculum we’re developing to engage kids into science, particularly girls and underrepresented communities. Art is clearly important in that sense.
Are you collaborating with Marina on any other projects?
We have one project that’s still in the works, but it’s kind of dormant right now.
Can you talk more about how you encountered your top Artist/Musician + Neuroscientist Collaborations?
I met Marina at the Sackler institute. She’s part of the Art and Science Insights into Consciousness workshop, which I curate. I volunteered to run a project envisioned by people there (Measuring the Magic of Mutual Gaze), which Matthias Oostrik also came on board for. Peter Burr is a friend! When I went to see a screening of his “Alone with the Moon” I realized I wanted our next synchrony project to focus on the emotional side of connectedness. Uri Hasson and Lauren Silbert I found because they collaborated with my principal investigator and I started a collaborative project with them. It turned out Lauren was working on similar questions on synchrony and art so we joined forces. Mariko Mori I encountered after we came up with our idea for the MWM. Someone pointed us to her work and we realized it was based on a similar idea of visualizing connectedness between two people. David Rosenboom and Tim Mullen’s work is just a classic The Happiness Project is very different in that it’s not just visualization but also asks questions that can help teens. It’s a theater piece created in collaboration with teens and it talks about depression and the worst thing that a parent can do which is to tell their child, “All I want is for you to be happy.” Because, how do you do that?! We all do it for our kids though of course, because it’s true. That’s all we want. So this project generates a lot of interesting discussions about happiness and the challenges of being an adolescent.