On 26 July the New Scientist carried news of research by Greg Stephens, Lauren Silbert and Uri Hasson at Princeton University. New Scientist noted that “There’s now scientific backing for the old adage that when two people “click” in conversation, they have a meeting of minds. The evidence comes from fMRI scans of 11 people’s brains as they listened to a woman recounting a story.”
The abstract of the research paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy indicates that:
Verbal communication is a joint activity; however, speech production and comprehension have primarily been analyzed as independent processes within the boundaries of individual brains. Here, we applied fMRI to record brain activity from both speakers and listeners during natural verbal communication. We used the speaker’s spatiotemporal brain activity to model listeners’ brain activity and found that the speaker’s activity is spatially and temporally coupled with the listener’s activity. This coupling vanishes when participants fail to communicate.
The scans showed that:
- the listeners’ brain patterns tracked those of the storyteller almost exactly…
- though trailed 1 to 3 seconds behind. But in some listeners …
- brain patterns even preceded those of the storyteller.
The article quoted Uri:
“We found that the participants’ brains became intimately coupled during the course of the ‘conversation’, with the responses in the listener’s brain mirroring those in the speaker’s”. Listeners with the best overlap were also judged to be the best at retelling the tale. Uri noted that “The more similar our brain patterns during a conversation, the better we understand each other”.
The Princeton research has some fascinating insights to share with coaches and teachers. In a mixed ability group it is interesting to note how each member of the group anticipates, stays with or misses a message.
Douglas Fields in his blog post about the research notes that:
Interestingly, in part of the prefrontal cortex in the listener’s brain, the researchers found that neural activity preceded the activity that was about to occur in the speaker’s brain. This only happened when the speaker was fully comprehending the story and anticipating what the speaker would say next.
The Princeton researchers found that there was no match between the brain patterns of the storyteller and the listeners, when they heard the same story in Russian, which they could not understand. Perhaps this is the equivalent of saying “They just did not get it.”