In the following TED talk, Steven Strogatz talks about the way various things in nature manage to synchronize. It’s typified by the fascinating metronome experiment Strogatz demonstrates on stage.
A recent study suggests that a similar kind of synching behavior occurs in the brain activity of teams who work closely together. Interestingly, by monitoring the brain waves of such a team, it’s even possible to identify who will be the best leader of the team.
Understanding team dynamics
The study set out to explore just why it was that teams so often fail to work effectively, and how that situation could be rectified.
A group of participants were given a challenge to solve that required collective input to tackle it effectively. Each participant wore an EEG cap to track their brain activity.
It emerged that when the team was effective, the brain waves of each member were very tightly synchronized together, especially in areas of the brain associated with things like attention, engagement and cognitive workload.
Similar findings emerged from a second study that asked participants to devise a solution to an ethical case study. Success in the task was regarded as devising a solution that both met the ethical criteria outlined and also the commercial needs of the company involved.
The researchers were able to identify roughly halfway through the task who would emerge as the leader of the group simply from monitoring the brain waves of each participant.
It transpired that whenever the ‘leader’ spoke, the engagement of the team rose. The research team were able therefore to identify this informal leader based both on the ratings from the team themselves and by observing the dynamics of the group.
Interestingly, the leadership role was not determined by how frequently the person spoke or any more traditionally used metrics.
The authors contend that this is because people who are more empathetic have a strong response in their suppression mirror neurons, which are believed to dampen brain activity when we watch or listen to someone.
In other words, it’s designed to help us focus on what others are doing or saying. It’s believed that those who have a greater ability to suppress brain activity in this way are more empathetic.
“Those who performed the best, who had the most creative solutions, had at least one team member who was very empathetic,” the authors say.
We have seen a number of wearable devices emerge onto the market that claim to offer advantages in the workplace, and I wonder how long it might be before our brainwaves are monitored whilst we work?