Follow the leader: Infrared image

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  • Published: Apr 1, 2015
  • Author: David Bradley
  • Channels: Infrared Spectroscopy
thumbnail image: Follow the leader: Infrared image

Follow the leader

The relationship between leaders and their followers develops spontaneously according to new research that uses near-infrared  imaging.

The relationship between leaders and their followers develops spontaneously according to new research that uses near-infrared imaging.

Leadership and communication skills go hand in hand, but this is not just a coincidence, according to work at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany and the State Key Laboratory of Cognitive Neuroscience and Learning and IDG/McGovern Institute for Brain Research in Beijing, China. Researchers there have shown that through communication, the relationship between leaders and their followers develops spontaneously. When a member of the group becomes the leader, the brain activity in the left temporo-parietal junction, which is linked to empathy and identification of another person's mental state, begins to synchronize with that in the same area of their followers as revealed by functional near-infrared spectroscopy fNIRS.

In sync

The team suggests that based on interpersonal neural synchronization, they can even predict which member of a group might emerge as leader and when, something that might be of particular interest to politicians in the run up to an election or companies looking for strong managers. Moreover, the synchronization process is tied to what an emerging leader says and when rather than simply how much they talk. In a peer group, saying the right thing at the right time can get you the leadership role ahead of simply the most talkative member of the group.

Human society operates on hierarchies in all walks of life from the smallest gang to the international political scene; we are social animals after all and leaders seem to be an essential component of a group being functional and productive. Even in an anarchistic revolution, leaders emerge to help fight the cause. This new research pins down empirical evidence for the underlying neurology that allows leader and followers to become synchronized.

The study involved asking members of three groups to discuss a moral dilemma while the researchers measured brain activity using fNIRS. In this technique, an increased concentration of oxyhaemoglobin is measured as a proxy for brain activity in a given region. The discussions were evaluated by members of the groups and external judges, who determined which member had emerged as "leader" and the fNIRS imaging was assessed in the light of this.

Verbal junction

The results showed that the brains of the group members subconsciously made a decision even before the end of the discussion. During the discussion, the left temporo-parietal junction in the brains of the group members began to become active in unison with that of the person who had begun to emerge as leader of the discussion. The researchers only recorded activity in the left temporo-parietal junction, however, so they cannot rule out that the right counterpart may also play an important role in leader emergence. This brain is thought to be concerned with our ability to understand another person's point of view and to anticipate their intentions and actions.

The team points out that verbal communication rather than non-verbal communication led to stronger neural synchronization. In humans, uniquely, verbal communication can outweigh the dominance achievable through displays of strength. Moreover, the specifics of how the emergent leader speaks during the experimental discussions was key to whether they would dominate. Questions raised and points made by the emerging leader elicited much stronger neural synchronization in the other members of the group than remarks by the followers.

"When leaders initiated the communication, it means they thought about the others' view and began to express their suggestion based on what followers said. During this very short time, they synchronized their brain activity with that of their followers. Leaders therefore distinguish themselves by what they say and when they say it," explains team member Jing Jiang.

Intriguingly, however, language areas in the brain did not synchronise during the experiments, in contrast to what one might have expected. "Verbal communication skills may not be the only factor; other attributes could also play a role, for example personal charisma or assertiveness," adds Jiang. Of course, the particular personal characters of the volunteers in the experiments may also have coloured the results and so much broader studies are now needed to demonstrate the findings more generally.

Related Links

Proc Natl Acad Sci 2015, online: "Leader emergence through interpersonal neural synchronization"

Article by David Bradley

The views represented in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of John Wiley and Sons, Ltd.

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