Neuroimaging study shows the surprising impact of role-playing on brain-to-brain synchrony


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A recent study published in BMC Psychology has shed light on how role-playing influences brain-to-brain synchrony. The research, conducted with participants from Singapore and Italy, found that role-playing activities disrupt typical brain synchrony patterns, with these effects moderated by the participants’ gender and cultural background.

The researchers aimed to explore the effects of role-playing on brain synchrony, which refers to the simultaneous activation of brain regions in interacting individuals. Prior studies have suggested that synchrony varies based on cultural and gender factors. However, little was known about how role-playing, a common activity in education, therapy, and entertainment, influences this dynamic.

“Role-playing is a prevalent and recently popular recreational activity that many take part in,” said study author Mengyu Lim, a PhD candidate at the Nanyang Technological University. “Anecdotally, role-playing is a means of experimenting with different identities, perspectives and behavior (and has been used clinically for this exact reason).”

“But the science behind how role-playing works is still unknown. Hyperscanning fNIRS allows us to look at how brain activities of two interacting individuals are altered during role-play, and whether role-play techniques have the ability to alter the way our brains communicate with each other.”

The study involved 83 pairs of friends from Singapore and Italy. Participants were recruited in two waves, with 41 pairs from Singapore and 42 pairs from Italy. The researchers used functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), a brain imaging technique, to measure brain activity in the participants’ prefrontal cortices. This area of the brain is associated with social cognition and executive functions, which are critical for understanding and responding to social cues.

Participants engaged in three different types of interactions: a natural conversation where they acted as themselves, a role-playing scenario where they acted as other known individuals, and a role-reversal scenario where they acted as each other. Each interaction lasted five minutes, and brain activity was recorded throughout.

To assess personality traits and empathy levels, participants completed the Big Five Inventory (BFI) and the Interpersonal Reactivity Index (IRI) before and after the interaction sessions. The BFI measures five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. The IRI measures empathy across four subscales: fantasy, empathic concern, perspective taking, and personal distress.

The researchers found that brain-to-brain synchrony was lower during role-playing activities compared to natural conversations. This suggests that when individuals take on roles different from their own, their brains may not coordinate as effectively as when they are themselves.

“Thanks to the collaboration between Nanyang Technological University and the University of Trento, we managed to perform a cross-cultural study,” Lim told PsyPost. “Overall, role-playing techniques seem to be related to decreased synchronous brain activity between two same-sex friends, and this is observed in both Singaporean (Southeast Asian) and Italian (European) cultures. This means that role-playing marks not only a departure from our usual behavior and social dynamics, but this can also be observed in terms of brain activity across different cultural contexts.”

Cultural differences also play a crucial role in brain synchrony during social interactions. The study found that participants from Singapore, which has a collectivistic culture, exhibited different patterns of brain synchrony compared to those from Italy, an individualistic culture.

Interestingly, Singaporean participants started with lower empathy scores before the interaction sessions but showed greater increases in empathy afterward. This suggests that cultural background influences not only how individuals interact but also how they emotionally respond to these interactions.

“As role-playing is commonly related to improvements in perspective taking and empathy, we attempted to connect our data on brain-to-brain synchrony, culture, sex and personality to the overall changes in empathy as reported by our participants,” Lim said. “Surprisingly, although both Singaporean and Italian participants took part in the same experimental paradigm, they showed different extents of empathy increase after the role-playing session. This may be a sign for clinicians using role-playing techniques that cultural adjustments are needed to achieve optimal outcomes when dealing with different client profiles.”

The researchers observed that female-female pairs generally displayed higher brain synchrony during natural conversations, whereas male-male pairs showed higher synchrony during role-playing activities. This indicates that men and women might tend to process and respond to social interactions differently depending on the context.

Personality traits also influence brain synchrony, particularly in the Italian cohort of the study. It was found that extraversion negatively predicted brain synchrony, while openness to experience positively predicted it. This means that individuals who are more open to new experiences tend to synchronize their brain activity better with others during social interactions. In contrast, more extroverted individuals might be less synchronized, possibly due to their focus on socializing over task-oriented engagement.

But the study, like all research, has some limitations. “One caveat lies in our limited sample size and participant characteristics; we only looked at interactions among psychologically healthy friends of the same sex,” Lim noted. “Our results may be less applicable to individuals who have a diagnosed psychiatric condition, as well as individuals who share different relationships (for example, lovers, strangers, or client-and-therapist).”

“Role-playing is such a dynamic and complex activity that it definitely has potential for deeper and more nuanced investigation,” Lim added. “A key area lies in translation research to make sure that our findings can be applied to daily life and even clinical interventions. Our collaborators, Alessandro Carollo and Dr. Andrea Bizzego, both co-authors of this paper, over at the University of Trento are also making use of this rich body of data with machine learning techniques to offer more robust analysis pipelines when dealing with fNIRS and conversational data.”

The study, “Culture, sex and social context influence brain-to-brain synchrony: an fNIRS hyperscanning study,” was authored by Mengyu Lim, Alessandro Carollo, Andrea Bizzego, Annabel SH Chen, and Gianluca Esposito.



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