This week’s studio guest: | Tomorrow Today - The Science Magazine | DW | 23.12.2013
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Tomorrow Today

This week’s studio guest:

This week’s studio guest is Dr. Isabel Dziobek, a neuropsychologist at the Free University of Berlin. She’ll tell us more about how music is currently being used to treat people with autism.

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03:45 mins.

And with me in the studio to tell us more is Isabel Dziobek, a neuropsychologist from the Free University of Berlin.

Now, synchronizing brains, that has to do with being on the same wavelength. Can we also reach that in our talk?

Isabel Dziobek
Sure, I think so. We can assume that those kinds of synchronization processes happen whenever people adjust their behaviours to others, when they coordinate their behaviour, maybe through music or dance or even through a conversation.

And what can make it especially intense?

Certainly if a person is empathic, if a person can feel into another person or appreciate the emotions of another person, then this person will be better able to tune into the other person.

So talking, music, even sports, can help us synchronize brains. Does science really know what happens inside the brain?

Not so much, actually. We are just beginning, because the technology is just getting there, to enable us really to look at two people simultaneously while their brains are scanned or while they have an EEG. Plus those kinds of methods are very susceptible to movement artifacts, that is why you can't really scan people while they are doing sports. While they are making music is something that is possible, as we just saw.

So what we saw in the report is more or less a superficial explanation -- just measuring the wavelengths, but we don't know what is lying underneath, with the neuronal processes.

We know at least as far as the frequencies go. We see that those brains swing at the same frequency. That is already a beginning, I think. If you are talking about brain areas, then at least those kinds of studies have shown that it is central and more frontal, for instance. But you are right that there is much more to discover, for sure.

Much more work for you. Now you actually work with autistic people. What is so special about them?

Autistic people have a core problem in social interaction. They have a deficit in empathizing with others, and they also have problems in imitating and synchronizing to the movements of other people. We think there is a connection between those two areas. And that is why we train people with autism to synchronize with others -- to mirror others' movements, to synchronize in circle dances, for instance -- because we hope we can also enhance empathy.

Do they always, by the way, have these special talents like photographic memory or stuff like that?

No, that is not the case. That is what the media try to make us believe, but it is rarely like that. It is maybe in five to ten percent of people with autism like that.

So back to your work with synchronization. You brought a video. Could you just explain what we see there.

Sure. So what we see here. This is a test we have developed, to measure spontaneous synchronization. On the right side you see an autistic adult who was told to do swings the way that he wants to do them. And then a dancer enters the scene and does a pretty standardized programme of movements. And what we observe, or what we look at, is if the autistic person synchronizes his or her movements in any way to what the dancer is doing.

In this case it did not really work, did it.

No, that is true. That is why I picked this as an example, because this person has a rather large movement repertoire as you can see, but he does not synchronize or adapt any of the movements that the dancer is making.

But overall would you say that your method is actually successful?

We were successful in enhancing imitation and in enhancing synchronization. We were not so successful in enhancing empathy, emotional empathy, or the understanding of emotions in others. But that is something we are still following up on.

Thanks a lot for the talk, Isabel Dziobek.

(Interview: Ingolf Baur)