Professor Digby Tatum of the University of Sheffield claims that our brains have the biological equivalent of a Wi-Fi, allowing other, nearby people to pick up micro-signals, gathering more information about our personality and what we’re communicating.

Our brain avoids eye contact because it gets overwhelmed by stimuli. Image via Wikipedia.

The interbrain

We’ve known for a while that language only partially accounts for our communication. Non-verbal cues are an important part of how we talk to others, and according to Tatum, a type of “interbrain” forms, with humans tuning in to each other’s cues. We pick up on other people’s gaze, smell, even some chemical changes. This, in turn, enables us to “see” beyond what people are saying and have gut feelings about things like people being ingenuine. It’s a form of empathy.

“It is based on the direct connection between our brains and other people’s and between their brain and ours. I call this the interbrain.”

Tatum, who studies autism, says that autistic people lack the ability to pick up on such cues, and thus miss out on a big part of interpersonal communication.

“People with autism have little or no interbrain connection. They are often able to pick up or learn what expressions mean, and yet that doesn’t seem to solve the problem of that lack of human connection.”

But this accounts for more than just gut feelings, Tatum says. This explains why, for instance, we find it hard to maintain eye contact while commuting — the brain just overloads with too much information it doesn’t know how to interpret. This also explains why most people enjoy gathering together in large crowds, such as concerts or football matches: they’re in tune with each other, resonating with the crowd. It’s like having a sense of transcendence, experiencing spiritual-like empathy.

The interbrain phenomenon might also be linked to negative actions. When people injure or kill others, their interbrain is switched off, no longer perceiving others as people.

Tatum also says that the internet is disrupting these cues, and this might be causing people to find communication more cumbersome and become more introverted. A face-to-face meeting comes with gestures, sound, the smell of sweat, and possibly touch. All of these are a form of communication, complementing verbal language; on the internet, you’re missing out on all of that, making mutual understanding more difficult.

It’s not just about what we see, smell also plays an important part in the process.

“The area of the brain that is closest to the nose is the orbitofrontal cortex. It might be there because so many of our most basic connections to other people are via smell,” Tatum said.

The orbitofrontal cortex also plays an important role in the cognitive processing of decision-making, supporting the idea that this is somehow connected to gut feelings.

So far, these findings have only been partially confirmed by peer-reviewed research.

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