Online gaming causes players’ brains to synchronize, improve empathy

Gamers may be unconsciously sharing their minds with one another while playing video games. Scientists at the University of Helsinki discovered that the brains of two people playing an online game together synchronized, despite the players being in two different rooms.

When two people meet in the real world and engage in a conversation, their brains simultaneously “activate” in a similar manner. Scientists believe this unique variety of inter-brain neural synchronization helps facilitate empathy and cooperation during face-to-face interactions. Now, groundbreaking new research reports brain synchronization also occurs during online social interactions.

Simply put, our brains sync up with others while chatting on social media or playing video games with them online.

Scientists came to the conclusions following an investigation that analyzed brainwave synchronization among pairs of gamers as they played a racing car game together. Importantly, the two participants were physically in separate, soundproof rooms.

In addition to discovering that inter-brain synchronization occurs during cooperative online gaming, this experiment also found that increased synchrony in the alpha and gamma frequency bands directly leads to better in-game performance. Researchers add that the association between performance and gamma synchronization was visible continuously over time.

“We were able to show that inter-brain phase synchronization can occur without the presence of the other person. This opens up a possibility to investigate the role of this social brain mechanism in online interaction,” says doctoral researcher Valtteri Wikström in a university release.

Screen time has become an unavoidable aspect of modern life, especially during the pandemic. Increased rates of remote work, and the ever-increasing popularity of social media and online video games, are just two examples. Consequently, many teachers, legislators, and parents worry that while technology is convenient it’s no substitute for actual face-to-face interactions. In light of these results, however, study authors believe that online social interactions can be beneficial if developed and implemented properly.

“If we can build interactive digital experiences which activate fundamental mechanisms of empathy, it can lead to better social relationships, well-being, and productivity online,” explains project manager Katri Saarikivi.

According to the research team, measurements of both physiological synchronization and cooperative performance can potentially evaluate the quality of social interactions. Determining which aspects of these interfaces promote understanding and connectedness can better inform and push future developments in a positive direction.

“This study shows that inter-brain synchronization happens also during cooperative online gaming, and that it can be reliably measured. Developing aspects in games that lead to increased synchronization and empathy can have a positive impact even outside of gaming,” Wikström concludes.

The study is published in the journal Neuropsychologia.

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