Science
Production by Felipe Silva; Editing and Interviews by Felipe Silva and Megan Embry; (length: 5:22)

A mini-documentary by the UKrant

In a living laboratory, neuroscience meets art

Inter-brain synchrony is really spooky. What can it tell us about human connection? A team of RUG scientists – led by a failed ballet dancer – tries to find out with a weird and wonderful experiment.
By Megan Embry

Van Vugt will be at the RUG’s Night of Art and Sciences on Saturday, June 8 at the A-Kerk. Starting at 8pm, she and other RUG scientists will demonstrate how the EEG machines work. Then Marieke and a friend will perform ballet wearing the EEG machines. Later that evening, two students will play music while also hooked up to the machines. Staff and students are welcome to come by and ask questions throughout the evening.

Two dancers circle each other, eyes closed, moving in eerie obedience to the regimented, clinical beat of a metronome. Like living marionnettes, their movements are constrained and strange, seemingly dictated by the dozens of wires trailing from their heads.

The wires of the EEG machines snake across the room to a laptop, which a few scientists study intently. Behind them, the wall is lit up with a projection of the dancers’ brain waves, a weird and jagged scramble of data that everyone in the room hopes will reveal something about the mystery of human connection.

It’s not your typical lab experiment, admits Marieke van Vugt, an assistant professor in the cognitive modeling group at the University of Groningen. But Marijke isn’t your typical scientist. ‘I like to say that I’m a failed ballet dancer who ended up becoming a scientist’, she laughs. ‘I never managed to escape dance, in the end. It keeps coming back to haunt me.’

Interdisciplinary

The experiment, ‘Notes on synchrony’, explores what the synchrony between the brains of two people can tell us about their social connection, and whether that connection can be manipulated through movement. It’s an interdisciplinary project carried out by RUG neuroscientists, the university college, and the Random Collision dance company.

‘We came together for this because we are all interested in the same question: what is human connection? What does it mean when we feel connected to each other? Can we use movement to create trust, or to break it?’, Van Vugt says. ‘We are taking the experiment on a tour throughout the Netherlands. We record with EEG while the dancers perform; we collect responses from the audience; and one of my PhD students as well as another professor from the university college contributes spontaneous spoken poetry in response to what the dancers are doing. It’s a multi-dimensional performance that allows us to collect scientific data, movement data, even artistic data – if you’ll allow me to call it that.’

Skepticism

It’s easy to see how a science experiment like this, which began with essentially philosophical questions about human connection and which relies on data drawn from the artistic interpretations of dancers, might be received with skepticism. As one audience member commented after a performance in the Hague: ‘As art, I find it very poor. As science, I honestly don’t know what to think.’

But the team is undeterred. ‘We all know what it is like to feel connected to someone else’, insists Van Vugt. ‘We just want to know a little more about what’s behind that.’ She suspects the answer might just be hiding somewhere in the blurry boundaries between science and art.

*Some of the images you will see in the video were shot during warm up and tech rehearsal, when the dancers explored specific movements at the request of the scientists for the sake of control data. During the actual experiment, the dancers carefully explored four modes of connection: dialogue, sync, touch, and disconnect. You can read more about the experiment and its challenges on Random Collision’s blog.

Van Vugt will be at the RUG’s Night of Art and Sciences on Saturday, June 8 at the A-Kerk. Starting at 8pm, she and other RUG scientists will demonstrate how the EEG machines work. Then Marieke and a friend will perform ballet wearing the EEG machines. Later that evening, two students will play music together while also hooked up to the machines. Staff and students are welcome to come by and ask questions throughout the evening.

Nederlands