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Title: Cognitive processing of a common stimulus synchronizes brains, hearts, and eyes

Neural, physiological, and behavioral signals synchronize between human subjects in a variety of settings. Multiple hypotheses have been proposed to explain this interpersonal synchrony, but there is no clarity under which conditions it arises, for which signals, or whether there is a common underlying mechanism. We hypothesized that cognitive processing of a shared stimulus is the source of synchrony between subjects, measured here as intersubject correlation (ISC). To test this, we presented informative videos to participants in an attentive and distracted condition and subsequently measured information recall. ISC was observed for electro-encephalography, gaze position, pupil size, and heart rate, but not respiration and head movements. The strength of correlation was co-modulated in the different signals, changed with attentional state, and predicted subsequent recall of information presented in the videos. There was robust within-subject coupling between brain, heart, and eyes, but not respiration or head movements. The results suggest that ISC is the result of effective cognitive processing, and thus emerges only for those signals that exhibit a robust brain–body connection. While physiological and behavioral fluctuations may be driven by multiple features of the stimulus, correlation with other individuals is co-modulated by the level of attentional engagement with the stimulus.

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PNAS Nexus
Oxford University Press
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National Science Foundation
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