Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts
Imagine you, a researcher, are given a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? Professor Bernadette Jansma would like to know what happens in the brain when people understand each other. Are they literally on the same (brain) wavelength?
It all started with the chairwomanship of the department in 2004. After that, she was dean of the Faculty of Psychology and Neurosciences and subsequently dean of Humanities and Sciences, as the Faculty of Science and Engineering was then called. Bernadette Jansma loves managing, setting out the course of a programme with a group of people, but that is difficult to combine with research.
Since she retired as a dean last year, she has all the time in the world for research. Her expertise? Her profile page states: aiming at getting wiser every day. In scientific terms, she studies brain processes such as perception, attention and language, often using neuroimaging techniques.
Her dream research would be about communication. What exactly happens in the brain when people understand each other? “When a colleague tells a story about a cycling trip to Amsterdam, that doesn't just activate my linguistic network but also all my background knowledge, emotions and imagination of Amsterdam, cycling, the landscape, et cetera. All that together we refer to as a mental model, in fact a specific pattern of brainwaves.”
It has been proven that people who talk with each other, show comparable mental models at that time. It is suspected that during the conversation these are constantly synchronised, but Jansma wants to know how that works exactly. “Until now only a handful of studies have been carried out, simplistic and on a small scale. I would like to set up a large-scale experiment, not in the lab but in an everyday setting.”
She would like to stick electrodes on five hundred test subjects, to register the various brainwaves. The test subjects should be connected to the same institute, business, whatever, where they meet socially, have a coffee or have business meetings. They would all wear smart glasses, fitted with a camera, so that Jansma can see during which activity synchronisation occurs. Is it only when they agree, or is it also when they have a difference of opinion? What happens if they get physical with each other?
“As a neuroscientist you couldn't do this study by yourself, you would need experts in the field of artificial intelligence. Furthermore, terabytes of information would be collected and all these need to be analysed. So data scientists would also need to be included.”
What would such a study provide us with? “We live in a society in which everyone is busy and has very little time, even to meet with friends and family. So when you meet up, you don't want to waste time superficially chatting and not making a connection. Imagine you could synchronise people's wavelengths so that they are in the same mood before they meet up. That might increase the quality of the get-together.”
Jansma sees a whole range of ‘follow-up studies’. “You could follow a couple in a marriage, but also patients with autistic disorders. Can their socioemotional limitations be traced in the brain? Do they in fact synchronize less easily? Something else: what happens in the heads of leaders and followers? Does a charismatic leader enforce synchronisation? Or a little closer to home: what happens in an Executive Board meeting? To what extent are our members of the Executive Board aligned with each other?”