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Togetherness: Synchronization at a Biological level

Is there anything special about face-to-face communication or could we simply use messenger?

There are several types of nonverbal cues that are not fully conveyed through virtual communication. Among them, the synchronization of our bodily rhythms plays a major role in human social life, since it is related to our social abilities, as well as to disorders such as schizophrenia or autism.

Have you ever noticed that couples walking together often synchronize their steps? There is no intention behind the action, their brains do it automatically. When our ancestors needed to lift a piece of wood or hunt a mammoth, they had to cooperate. As it would be too difficult or impossible to plan every single detail in theory, the pressure of evolution had wired their brains to synchronize without giving it a thought.

Today, the same mechanism enables our music bands and orchestras to play together. When scientists put EEG caps on the heads of a few guitarists and asked them to play together, they found that musicians’ brains synchronized even before they started playing together. Thus, the quality of their cooperation was directly related to the quality of the mutual synchronization of their brain waves.

Timing was not the only condition for the mammoth hunters’ cooperation. They also needed to understand the activities of other tribe members. Are they going to lift the rock or drop it on my toe? How does she feel? Need any help? And if he is going away, shall I follow him to hunt together or does he need a moment alone?

Most of these questions could be answered even before the invention of language. We need language to understand a message “there is a man in pain in the jungle”. However, when seeing the man with a bloody, misplaced limb, we can perceive his pain immediately.

Our brains simply imagine ourselves in his situation, letting us directly experience what it would be like. This phenomenon is called “second person perspective” – and differs from the first person, introspective perception, as well as from the third person, theoretical one.

To take a second person perspective, which makes us capable of walking in others’ shoes, we, however, need many nonverbal clues. We read the invisible microtremors of others’ fingers, subtle changes in their blood flow and muscle tension, modifications in their tone of voice or sweat contents. Based on this, we guess the reason behind such changes, the current settings of the other’s brain – and we adjust activation accordingly. This is called empathy and it is necessary for mutual understanding.

In virtual communication, we lack all of these little details, as well as context to interpret them correctly. Although we can easily agree on meeting at 5pm or finishing an assignment on Friday, the deeper extent of our communication is undermined. A frightened person soothes him or herself by synchronizing with the steady, relaxed body rhythms of another person – something which can hardly be communicated verbally via Skype.

No messages and no emojis can substitute the presence of another person or their reactions in any given moment.

While all our communication tools are of great help transferring ones and zeros with a particular meaning, their mere presence eliminates the immediateness and richness of the interaction. A car can bring us to our favourite park to go jogging - but driving around for two hours can hardly replace jogging itself. Information and communication technologies extend our communication capabilities in the same way a car expands our movement skills: they do a great job delivering a message from place A to place B, and we may enjoy them as well as we enjoy driving - but sitting in front of a screen differs from real communication as much as turning your wheel left and right differs from actually feeling the burn of your jog.

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