Elucidating the ‘shared brain’

To date, everything we know about how a person’s social identity is formed has been based on conscious processes of measurement and self-assessment (for example, post-hoc questionnaires or verbal reports). However, it is highly likely that the formation of a conscious social identity begins in, and is heavily influenced by, processes within the unconscious; such influences between unconscious and conscious processes have been demonstrated time and again over the last half-century of psychological research. Therefore, in order to understand how social identity is formed we must investigate processes occurring within both the conscious and unconscious. Due to the advent of mobile, lightweight, wearable devices that measure brain activity, researchers are finally able to record processes occurring at the unconscious level that underlie visible behaviours.

In the last four years, several research groups have shown that a shared emotional state between interacting individuals is necessary for a shared identity to be formed, and that underlying this shared emotional space is a sharedness in active neural processes which can be visualised by Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG). Further recent literature puts forward procedures by which the emotional state of an individual can be captured by features within an EEG signal. Thus, we are now at a moment in time where we can use EEG and observational data to explore the development of a shared identity from its beginnings in the unconscious through to its fully realised, conscious, state.

This research project will be carried out in two new EEG labs in the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath. The facilities include a new Faraday shielded testing room to permit social interaction between two individuals whilst maintaining an environment appropriate for accurate EEG recording. There is also a new ‘simulation lab,’ in which different environments can be created and EEG signals recorded using wireless EEG devices. Support for the mathematical elements of the work will be facilitated by Bath’s Institute for Mathematical Innovation which has been set up to nurture cross-disciplinary projects of this type.

The output of this project will be a watershed moment in psychological science as it will lead to a significant increase in our understanding of how humans, through conscious social interaction, unconsciously relate to each other. This project will provide a visual map of the emergence of the shared identity, providing fundamental insight into the unconscious and conscious (emotional) processes instrumental in the development (or degradation) of a shared identity. The impact of the findings will be large-scale as one can see applications wherever the need for a cohesive social identity is required. Based upon the transformative findings from this study the team is committed to developing a procedure to identify markers related to the emergence of a shared social identity based upon EEG, in real-time. 

Dr Neal Hinvest
University of Bath
Research Project Grant

Co-investigators: Dr Laura Smith, Dr Chris Ashwin, Dr Jonathan Dawes