Storytelling Synchrony

Research is revealing that the brains of storytellers and listeners fall in sync with each others’ synaptic activity.

"Hey Mom, guess what - I'm totally syncing with your brain right now."

A team led by Princeton neuroscientist Uri Hasson studied fMRI scans of speakers and listeners during a storytelling session, then asked the listeners a series of follow-up questions to check how well they comprehended the story:

Hasson and his colleagues recorded the brain responses of a woman who was telling a story about her prom and those of people who were listening to her … The recordings showed that the listeners’ brains started to resemble the speaker’s brain, or “couple” with it.

The listeners who reported a strong understanding of the story showed a high degree of coupling with the speaker’s brain – particularly in the primary auditory cortex (A1), as well as in the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), which helps us process distinctions between ourselves and others, and imagine what others are thinking and feeling (a process known as theory of mind).

On the whole, the storyteller’s brain activity tended to precede the listeners’, especially in regions associated with self-reflection, such as the insula and precuneus – though the listeners’ brain activity occasionally leaped ahead in these regions as well. And in a few areas, the listeners‘ brain activity preceded the storyteller’s – especially in certain parts of the prefrontal cortex (PFC) that are associated with anticipation and planning.

This all points toward the idea that participants in a conversation come to occupy a sort of shared conceptual space:

“If I say, ‘Do you want a coffee?’ you say, ‘Yes please, two sugars.’ You don’t say, ‘Yes, please put two sugars in the cup of coffee that is between us,’” said Hasson. “You’re sharing the same lexical items, grammatical constructs and contextual framework. And this is happening not just abstractly, but literally in the brain.”

Hasson plans to go on to study the process of more involved dialogue, to watch how people’s brains fall in and out of sync as they have a discussion or a debate. In fact, it seems that debates might interest him most of all, because he says the team is planning to focus on interactions “where there’s a failure to communicate” – in particular, one of the oldest communication breakdowns of all:

Future work may look at whether gender differences affect how we understand each other.

If this sort of technology could be applied to debates about other hot topics – like regional politics and religion – we might finally see some hard neurological data on why exactly opposing groups always seem to miss (or ignore) each others’ points. Such data probably won’t present ready-made solutions, but it may give the participants some starting points for a new kind of dialogue.

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