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  1. Abstract

    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.

  2. Experienced teachers pay close attention to their students, adjusting their teaching when students seem lost. This dynamic interaction is missing in online education. We hypothesized that attentive students follow videos similarly with their eyes. Thus, attention to instructional videos could be assessed remotely by tracking eye movements. Here we show that intersubject correlation of eye movements during video presentation is substantially higher for attentive students and that synchronized eye movements are predictive of individual test scores on the material presented in the video. These findings replicate for videos in a variety of production styles, for incidental and intentional learning and for recall and comprehension questions alike. We reproduce the result using standard web cameras to capture eye movements in a classroom setting and with over 1,000 participants at home without the need to transmit user data. Our results suggest that online education could be made adaptive to a student’s level of attention in real time.
  3. Heart rate has natural fluctuations that are typically ascribed to autonomic function. Recent evidence suggests that conscious processing can affect the timing of the heartbeat. We hypothesized that heart rate is modulated by conscious processing and therefore dependent on attentional focus. To test this, we leverage the observation that neural processes can be synchronized between subjects by presenting an identical narrative stimulus. As predicted, we find significant inter-subject correlation of the heartbeat (ISC-HR) when subjects are presented with an auditory or audiovisual narrative. Consistent with the conscious processing hypothesis, we find that ISC-HR is reduced when subjects are distracted from the narrative, and that higher heart rate synchronization predicts better recall of the narrative. Finally, patients with disorders of consciousness who are listening to a story have lower ISC-HR, as compared to healthy individuals, and that individual ISC-HR might predict a patients’ prognosis.. We conclude that heart rate fluctuations are partially driven by conscious processing, depend on attentional state, and may represent a simple metric to assess conscious state in unresponsive patients.