Article image

Students learn better when their brain waves are in sync

A groundbreaking study by a team of psychology and education researchers has discovered that students who exhibit “brain-to-brain synchrony” with their classmates and teachers are more likely to learn effectively. 

This research, recently published in the journal Psychological Science, presents novel insights into the learning process and its underlying neurological factors.

Ido Davidesco, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, emphasized the novelty of the findings. “This is the first study to show that the extent to which students’ and teachers’ brainwaves are in sync during real-world learning can predict how well students retain information from class.” The study was conducted while Davidesco was a postdoctoral fellow at New York University (NYU).

“Much of human learning happens when we interact with others, but very little is known about how this process is reflected in the brain activity of students and teachers. This work reveals that students whose brainwaves are more in sync with their peers and teacher are likely to learn better,” said study senior author Professor Suzanne Dikker.

Traditionally, understanding how the brain supports learning in a social context has been limited due to the controlled laboratory settings in which individual participants are studied. However, this study aimed to explore brain function in a real-world, group context.

To accomplish this, the research team employed electroencephalography (EEG), a method involving a cap with electrodes placed on the head to track electrical brain activity. Using this technique, the researchers monitored the brain activity of small groups of undergraduate students and an instructor – none of whom knew each other prior to the study. 

The researchers used portable electroencephalogram (EEG) technology (pictured above) to measure the brainwaves of students and instructors.
Image courtesy of Diane Quinn, © 2015 Trevor Day School.

The instructors delivered short lectures on various scientific topics, and both the students’ and instructors’ brainwaves were monitored throughout.

Following the lectures, students took multiple-choice tests to evaluate their learning. The research team observed that as students listened to the lecture, their brainwaves synchronized with one another. They also noted this “brain-to-brain synchrony” – similar brain-activity patterns over time – when comparing students’ brainwaves to the teacher’s brainwaves.

Crucially, students whose brain activity was more in sync with their peers and with the teacher displayed better learning outcomes, as evidenced by higher post-lecture test scores. The researchers were even able to predict which test questions students would answer correctly based on the synchrony of their brainwaves during the corresponding moments of the lecture.

The study authors stress that the connection among students and between students and their instructor is key to understanding the learning process. In fact, they could not determine how well students retained information by examining individual students’ brainwaves alone – only synchrony in brainwaves between students and teachers predicted learning success.

“Brain data collected simultaneously from groups of students can be more informative than data collected from individual students,” said Davidesco.

This pioneering research involved collaboration among experts from various institutions, including Emma Laurent, a doctoral student at Harvard University, Henry Valk, a data scientist at Pison Technology, Inc., Tessa West, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology, Catherine Milne, a professor in NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development, and David Poeppel, a professor in NYU’s Department of Psychology and managing director of the Ernst Strüngmann Institute for Neuroscience in Frankfurt, Germany.

More about brain synchrony

Brain synchrony, or brain-to-brain synchrony, refers to the phenomenon where the neural activity of two or more individuals becomes synchronized, exhibiting similar patterns over time. While research on this topic is still in its early stages, several studies have explored the potential implications and underlying mechanisms of brain synchrony in various contexts.

  1. Social interactions: Research has shown that brain synchrony can occur during social interactions, such as conversations or shared experiences. This synchronization may play a role in empathy, understanding, and cooperation among individuals. For instance, studies have found increased neural synchrony between individuals during eye contact, storytelling, and joint attention.
  2. Emotional connection: Brain synchrony has been observed in romantic partners, close friends, and family members, suggesting that it may be associated with emotional bonding and connectedness. When individuals have a strong emotional connection, their brain activity may become more similar, facilitating shared experiences and mutual understanding.
  3. Learning and education: As demonstrated in the study mentioned in the previous answer, brain synchrony between students and teachers can predict learning outcomes. This finding suggests that the degree of synchrony between individuals may be an important factor in the learning process, possibly promoting better understanding and retention of information.
  4. Group dynamics and teamwork: Brain synchrony has also been explored in the context of group dynamics and teamwork. Research has shown that synchronized brain activity among team members can lead to improved group performance, better problem-solving, and enhanced cooperation.
  5. Neural mirroring: One possible mechanism for brain synchrony is neural mirroring, which occurs when the brain activity of one individual mirrors that of another. This is thought to be facilitated by mirror neurons—specialized cells in the brain that fire both when an individual performs an action and when they observe someone else performing the same action. Neural mirroring may contribute to empathy, imitation, and understanding of others’ intentions and emotions.

Despite these insights, the precise mechanisms underlying brain synchrony and its implications in various contexts remain an active area of research. Further studies are needed to fully understand the significance of brain-to-brain synchrony and its potential applications in education, therapy, and interpersonal communication.


Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and

News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day