An interactive mind

Our editor Jon Sutton talks to Andreas Roepstorff (Aarhus University).

Tell me about the Interacting Minds Centre.
The Interacting Minds Centre is a relatively playful environment within the Aarhus University structure. The university has gone radical interdisciplinary over the last few years. We managed to convince the university management that there was an area where it made sense to collaborate across the different faculties, and that we have a good mix of people who could actually do it. We have core funding for five years now for our research agenda.

And what’s the topic that makes that approach particularly suitable?
What unites everyone is that people are using different methods to study the emerging patterns that happen when people are interacting. The name’s a tribute to the classic Chris and Uta Frith paper in Science. There is a core of classical anthropology, of sociology… we are doing experimental approaches as well, but by thinking in three different ways – using the experiment as a method, as an aesthetic, as an experimental art – you try out novel things. And, particularly for me as an anthropologist, experiments themselves can be interesting to study. What type of sociality is an experiment?

So you’ve talked about making people from different disciplines do very concrete research projects, and the challenges involved in that.
Ideally, it’s not just talking. Part of the raison d’être of the centre itself is to explore what happens when we make such projects in practice.

It’s a kind of ‘meta-centre’?
We’re certainly trying to practise what we preach! When we wrote the applications we had an obsession with Cs. We had the subheadings of Cognition, Choice and Communication. The interaction between the three defines the research topic.

… and Cohesion, and the Collective aspect?
Yes, we could have gone on! I’ve been in another research endeavour when it was organised around columns, so there would be one topic to be pursued in five years by one group of people, and another for another group. Instead, as a coordinating principle, we had an overarching heading every academic year. The first year was about coordination; we are now in the confusion phase; next year is scheduled to be about conflict; and finally cooperation. I expected that would mirror the development within the centre, and we are indeed in the confusion phase now… I hope we won’t see too many conflicts!

Is that a particularly Danish approach to psychology and to science in general?
Not particularly. But at Aarhus University over time we have built up such an environment. What a lot of people realised was that we’re at the end of the world, not a very prestigious university, and we don’t want to be intellectually what we are geographically. We have to build more resources together, to create an environment which is interesting to be in and interesting to visit.

You describe yourself as a ‘long-term tourist in psychology’ – you’ve come from the anthropological background where presumably the experimental approach isn’t so common.
I have a background in biology with a focus in neuroscience, and a background in anthropology as well. So a foot placed on either side of what you might see as psychology, but nothing in the middle.

So what does that bring to a specific project? You’ve studied fire-walking rituals for example…
What my approach brought here was not the specific research topic… we had a brilliant anthropologist, Dimitris Xygalatas, who was interested in the idea that when people do rituals they don’t do it just for themselves, it somehow creates an effect for the society. The people involved are not just the performers, but the community itself. He came up and said could we do some kind of proxy measure of that. We thought we could use fluctuations in heart rate. Ivana Konvalinnka, who came from an engineering background, had the technical skills to do the measurement and analysis. It was clear when we looked at the patterns of activity, you could tell when their partners were doing the fire walking, they were spiking similar to each other. But we had no way of quantifying it, we had a year of thinking ‘What should we do with the data?’. We came across a very creative psychologist, the late Guy van Orden, who worked on complex data analysis, and he had the tools that would allow us to do something more quantitative. If anything I was a kind of catalyst, looking at what we could do with the data. In that sense it was a typical Interacting Minds project – how could we do things we couldn’t do otherwise, by doing them together. And the topic is all about interaction as well.

From that you found that these rituals have an impact on the group, in terms of cohesion and synchronicity, as well as an impact on the individual in terms of prosociality?
Around an interesting experiment comes a whole undergrowth, an ecosystem… the first fire-walking study was really a wild shot, completely crazy, somehow we managed to get it into a top journal, but then going on with that idea to say there is something that it does to people, a lot of other studies have been built around it. So would that shared body experience translate into prosociality? People’s willingness to donate to some kind of common good was larger for those who participated as watchers in a high-intensity ritual rather than a low-intensity ritual. This suggests that there is something about the aroused bodily states which creates that cohesion.

Durkheim talks about rituals in terms of the ‘electricity generated by their closeness’.
What might be critical is instances of bodily pain… if you look at Christianity, a lot of the major religions, aspects of pain seem to be a critical aspect. But it’s not there as an actualisation in most forms of religion.

You write that humans have brains, they have experiences, they’re embedded in cultural contexts, and that somehow these different factors interact with each other. Does it surprise you that this still needs saying?
It does. Particularly coming from my kind of background, it’s surprising that it has been so hard for psychology to deal with the importance of the experiences. My first fieldwork in psychology was back in 2000 with Chris Frith in London. Tony Jack was trying to do a project on experiences in a scanning environment, and it just turned impossible. We basically asked people what it was like to be in the scanner, and that was considered incredibly provocative!

They were just interested in the brain scans at the end of it?
Yes. What struck me was that in order to do these scans, in order to make the science, it took an awful lot of interaction to make that work. Our crucial experiment was a version of the rock/paper/scissors task, which was looking at social cognition or theory of mind. People were playing against an opponent, they thought it was somebody on the outside but most of the time it was just a computer. For the neural activity we found premedial frontal cortex, but our subjective reports found huge differences between playing what they thought was a person and what they thought was a computer. All of that relied on the understanding of the situation, and that was all inter-subjectively mediated. In other words, it became clear to us that in many of these situations what we do to each other to provide these frames of understanding are what set up the experiment in the first place, but once you go out of the scanner that aspect is completely absent from the study.

So you’re in the middle, trying to get anthropologists to think more experimentally and more in terms of the brain maybe, but then trying to get hardened neuroscientists to stop attaching ‘neuro’ to everything? You wouldn’t necessarily advocate a ‘neuroanthropology’?
I think that issue is what anthropology was basically about in the first place. We just saw a talk at this conference on children’s development and the neural perspective, a lot of really nice stories about how it’s a good thing for a child to be loved and have something to play with, and there was some neural evidence that pointed in the same direction, but I don’t think the ‘neuro’ story added anything to what we already know.

You describe the fire-walking study as a wild and crazy idea… you seem to have a few of those, I don’t know if the ‘destroying money’ study was yours?
The idea wasn’t mine but I clearly supported it! Christina Becchio was interested in these social objects… she came up with the idea that if money is the quintessential social object the destroying the object would be a way to see remnants of that. She made these beautiful films of cutting notes into pieces. I had been working with Chris and Uta Frith, and we discovered we had a shared interest in looking at aspects of social cognition, but not just in the passive, in the active. They trained us in the classical experimental psychology.

Uta has talked about this idea of ‘slow science’. With slow cooking there’s this idea of ‘you are what you eat’, but also ‘you become how you cook’.
I think that’s critical to a research process as well. How I would translate it is that there has to be a focus on the product, the articles that we publish, but at the end of the day the real interest in most of us is the ability to set up these kind of creative yet rigid processes – having a sensitivity for these processes and how they develop seems to be a critical element.

And that can get lost in the pressure of academia and the process of evaluation?
Yes, but it’s somehow integral to the environment that one works in. To most researchers there’s a great degree of sensitivity as to who it is worth spending time with, who is it worth working with? So just as in the Centre there’s this somewhat playful relationship between on the one hand doing research in interaction and exploring what is an interactive framework in the first place, I would see that to be basically integral to the research process as well, particularly when you work across disciplines. You have to be sensitive to the way things are being produced along the way. At the end of the day that’s also going to decide whether this piece of evidence holds true or not. We all know the tricks you can do with statistics. What determines whether you trust a finding and talk about it has to do with all the other things that went into the making of it, that you know about and that other people know about. That would be how I would take that ‘slow science’ approach… the process of doing it is a critical element.

Where does that take you next in terms of your research focus?
We have quite a few projects that look at how people produce things together. We try to explore the markers – the physiology, simple movements, patterns of communication and shared language… We thought that the index of success would be measures of synchronicity, that the more you synchronise the better it feels, the better the product. What we have seen again and again is that if anything, markers of synchronisation are negatively correlated with outcome success. For instance, people built LEGO cars together, and basically it seems that an ability to complementarily organise is much more important than having synchrony. At least once a certain level of synchrony is achieved. So we are trying to understand how we get an idea of the type of organisation that is necessary, how we measure that. We’re also looking at the social understanding of the task, and we have found that when there is a perceived hierarchical relationship in the completion of a task – when there was a leader who could tell others what to do – then the subjective report of the success of that collaboration was in fact uncorrelated with how much the participants synchronised their hearts. In other words, something about the social understanding of the task seems to translate into the actual dynamic.

Echoing the ideas of complementarity and trust in terms of how you organise your research centre!
Yes, that’s what we’re trying with this.

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