March 01, 2010
When people work together, they have to coordinate their actions very closely. Wolfgang Prinz, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, and his colleagues are investigating precisely what goes on in their heads in the process.
Text: Peter Zekert
Playing in a duet or a musical ensemble means harmonizing with others in more than one sense. The sounds produced by the musicians will combine to form a unified voice only if each note played by the individual members complements those produced by the rest of the group. And musicians are not the only ones who need an acute awareness of the other people around them. We all need this in the course of our everyday lives, which consist of a series of major and minor social interactions in which we repeatedly and intuitively adapt to other people.
Whether giving way as pedestrians to other oncoming pedestrians, shaking hands with another person, helping someone carry a sofa up a staircase, dancing or playing basketball, all of our actions must be coordinated with those of other people. But how is it that we always realize so quickly what they are going to do? Wolfgang Prinz is interested in the basic processes involved in this kind of joint action. The Director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig conducts research into social behavior on the micro level. The fact is that a great deal more cognitive activity lies behind our everyday interaction with other people than we realize.
The way in which the actions we perform in conjunction with others form a unified whole is something that usually functions automatically and something we notice mainly when things go wrong – when the musical ensemble produces the wrong note, when a pass to a team member goes awry, or when a foot lands on a tango partner’s toes.