A revolutionary new MRI technique has revealed that people in close physical contact appear to have synchronized brain patterns.
Finnish researchers performed an MRI scan on two people cuddling under a blanket and the results showed that their brains appeared to be falling into similar patterns of action and response as they took turns gently tapping the other’s lips.
“In general terms, it shows how the brains of two individuals become ‘tuned in’ together during this kind of elementary human interaction,” said senior researcher Lauri Nummenmaa, head of the Human Emotion Systems laboratory at the University of Turku in Finland. “This type of research could be valuable when dealing with conditions where people have trouble with social interactions,” he noted.
“Such processes are disrupted in numerous conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder, and understanding the elementary mechanisms of sociability will help us in understanding these conditions better,” Nummenmaa said.
It’s not surprising that the 10 couples in the study – all either friends or romantic partners – appeared to have had synchronized brain responses, said Tiffany Field, director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami. “There’s this intimacy that generates similar patterns of physiological and biochemical responses, and this is a good demonstration of that,” she said. “That’s been shown in everything from heart rates to brain waves, and other measures like cortisol levels.”
For example, previous studies have shown blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol differ in partners when they’re working and not spending time with each other, but fall into sync on the weekends when couples are spending all day with each other. “I expect that if they pursue these studies, they’re going to find very similar regions of the brain are being activated at similar times as these people are cuddling or wrapped around each other,” Field stated.
However, Field added that the real value of this initial study lies in the fact that two human brains were scanned at the exact same time using one single MRI machine. “This establishes you can take MRIs in two people at the same time,” Field said. “It shows the technology is possible.” In this experimental MRI, the head coil used for regular brain scans was split into two separate coils, allowing for simultaneous scanning of two brains when people are positioned close together inside the machine.
“The main goal of this study was to benchmark the new two-person brain imaging setup,” Nummenmaa said. “We found that our setup could reliably pick brain signals from both participants, and we saw a clear alteration in the motor (in the person who was doing the touching) and somatosensory (in the person who was feeling the touching) cortices in the subjects,” Nummenmaa said. “However, both cortical sites were always activated to some extent in both participants.”
Researchers said there are countless ways to use this technology to investigate how the brain processes social interaction, now that the MRI technology has been proven to work. “For example, during a conversation or problem solving, people’s brain functions become flexibly linked with each other,” said researcher Riitta Hari, a retired professor of neuroscience at Aalto University in Espoo, Finland. “However, we cannot understand the brain basis of real-time social interaction if we cannot simultaneously scan the brain functions of both persons involved in social interaction,” Hari explained in a university news release. If you were looking for a reason to spend more time cuddling with your partner, science is surely one of them! The new study was published online April 28 in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry.
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