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UK: In a living laboratory, neuroscience meets art | Marieke van Vugt

06 June 2019

Production by Felipe Silva; editing and interviews by Felipe Silva and Megan Embry

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. 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.’


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.’ > read full article at Ukrant.

Last modified:12 June 2019 2.05 p.m.

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