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When People Interact, Their Brains Become One Complex System And What If Neuroscientific Advances Made it Impossible to Lie?

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, December 17, 2009
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
Two people tap out a simple rhythm together. Does one become a leader, maintaining the beat, and while the other strives to follow? To find out,experimenters let drummers hear their partners' beats, but not their own. Surprisingly, no leader emerged. All became followers, continually adjusting to the other person's beat that they heard.

Andreas Roepstorff and colleagues describe that experiment in "How Our Brains Build Social Worlds", an article in the December 21 issue of People unconsciously imitate each other all the time in social interactions, the authors say, and "the parts of the brain that respond unconsciously to the actions of others create a form of resonance." That's usually what's going on when we think we are "on the same wavelength" with anther person.

Neurologically, the authors say, people performing or interacting socially are best thought of as one complex system, rather than individual systems.

Roepstroff is an anthropologist in neuroscience who is also associate professor and coordinator of cognitive research at Aarhus University and the Danish National Research Council's Center for Functionally Integrative Neuroscience. The Interacting Minds Project, supported by the Danish national organization and Aarhus University, studies the normal workings of socially interacting minds with the goal of later expanding the findings into clinical examinations of such afflictions of autism and schizophrenia.

One goal, the authors say, is to learn how the brain models other people's models of the world.And that raises questions about deception: how do we know when someone is misleading us, or when another person's motives may be dangerous? Our brains may have distinct mechanisms for such perceptions.The Internet increases the possibilities for more interaction, and the spread of more ideas, for good and ill. Clay Shirky in a 2003 essay observed that large group of people interacting with one another electronically become entities themselves and will behave in ways that cannot be predicted by knowing aboutthe individuals. He says we're still learning how to deal with that.

And what about the spread of ideas that are wrong or dishonest? Neuroscientist Sam Harris addresses that in his answer to The Edge 2009 question What Will Change Everything. (Scroll well down the page to get to this answer, though other entries are fascinating if you have time) Harris thinks technology eventually will make it just about impossible to lie. While he doubts that neuroimaging will yield our most nuanced thoughts, he thinks it's almost certain that before long neuroscience will be able to tell us whether a person is representing thoughts memories and perceptions honestly. "There may come a time," he writes, "when every court room or board room will have the requisite technology discretely concealed behind its wood paneling." And considering the social cost of lies and the frauds they support, he thinks society will benefit from making deceptions obsolete.

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