Stanford scientists peak into ‘dark matter of cooperation’

Stanford scientists peak into ‘dark matter of cooperation’

By Luke Vargas   
Published
A male-male pair undergo fNIRS hyperscanning while simultaneously performing a computer-based task. Credit: Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research
A male-male pair undergo fNIRS hyperscanning while simultaneously performing a computer-based task. Credit: Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research

New research sheds light on the complex role of gender in determining how brains interact.

NEW YORK (Talk Media News) – Men working together demonstrated greater mental “synchrony” in performing a computer-based task than women working together, according to new research published by neuroscientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

The findings do not indicate male intellectual superiority, the study cautions, but do shed light on the  “dark matter of cooperation,” helping researchers understand the unique roles played by men and women in cooperative tasks.

Researchers have long seen that women and men “use somewhat different circuitries to get to the same answer or to perform at the same level,” said Allan Reiss, director of the Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research at Stanford. With the development of scientific tools, researchers like Reiss looked at how brains interact with one another.

“Is it just two brains kind of in their own jars doing their own thing and you somehow out of that you get cooperative behavior or competition or romantic interaction?” he said. “Or is it something more than that? Is there some type of synchrony that develops? We used to refer this phenomenon as the dark matter of the brain that synchrony is what we call coherence.”

To search for this coherence, Reiss and a team led by Ning Liu and Joseph M. Baker observed how 222 participants completed a simple computer-based task when sorted into pairs. Some pairs were comprised of two males, while others were mixed gender or comprised of two females.

The task undertaken by each pair involved two separate computer monitors displaying black circles that would simultaneously turn green at irregular intervals.

“It was the participant’s task to press a single button on their keyboard whenever the circle turned green,” said Baker, a post-doctoral researcher at Stanford, “not simply to do it haphazardly, but to match their button press with their partner.”

Detailed images highlight the areas of mental activity monitored by fNIRS patches during the experiment. Credit: Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research
Detailed images highlight the areas of mental activity monitored by fNIRS patches during the experiment. Credit: Stanford Center for Interdisciplinary Brain Sciences Research

Pairs were not allowed to talk, though they did receive a “win” message on their screens if their times were closely aligned and a “lose” message if they fell more out of sync.

After 40 repetitions, each pair greatly improved improved their coordination, with some pairs firing off their buttons immediately and others waiting a longer period of time before clicking simultaneously.

Differences did emerge when researchers broke down results by gender, and pairs involving one or two men not only performed better, but they demonstrated a mental synchrony not seen in pairs composed only of women.

“The female-female groups performed significantly less well than the male-male or male-female groups,” Baker said, noting that male pairs “won” the task with around 15 percent greater frequency. “We’re certainly not claiming that men are better cooperators than women, but it may be that on our task or similar tasks, that they do engage more executive functioning processes than women.”

While women registered high levels of brain activity in areas associated with executive function tasks –defined by Reiss as “planning, inhibiting and shifting” – only men registered “inter-brain coherence.”

A similar study conducted in China found a mirror opposite trend, with pairs featuring females demonstrating “inter-brain coherence.” Baker said that study raised the intriguing question whether “culture may have an effect on the neural signatures of social cognition.”

But both Baker and Reiss cited numerous directions their research could go next. Both are eager to see how improved understanding of mental synchrony can help those with autism, who often struggle to establish and maintain cooperative relationships.

“If we’re starting to get at this dark matter of the neuroscience of cooperation maybe we can start to think about the ways we can help these folks,” said Reiss. “For example, with real-time feedback training on how their brains are or are not in synchrony with another person.”

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