Study Finds Brains Literally "Sync Up" In Conversation

Good communication is a matter of getting "in sync" with others, as you've probably noticed when you've seen people match their steps perfectly as they walk, and imitate each other's gestures as they talk, and use each other's phrases and grammar. Last week, this paper reported  this kind of coordination in the most important place of all: When people converse, it reports, regions of their brains synchronize their activity. "Neural coupling," they argue, is a key part of communication.


Uri Hasson, Lauren Silbert and Greg Stephens recorded Silbert telling a 15-minute story while an MRI scanner recorded changes in activity levels in various regions of her brain. The researchers then played the recording to 11 volunteers while their brains were MRI-ed. As they listened, the paper reports, their brains' patterns of activity matched Silbert's.

The work is a nice departure from models that look for activity in "the brain," because, of course, communication doesn't take place in isolation. It also challenges the notion that listening and talking are neatly separated activities: "neural coupling" took place in both "comprehension" and "production" regions of the listeners' brains.

Especially interesting, as Michael Balter points out, were the regions in which the listeners went first: As they heard the story, their brains fired in a pattern that matched Silbert's, but hers came a moment later. They were, it seems, anticipating what she would say, priming themselves to hear what they expected. The better the match between Silbert's brain activity and these "predictive anticipatory responses" in a listener, the better the listener understood the story.

Thanks to some ingenious experiments by Sir Frederic Charles Bartlett in the 1930's, we know that listeners often "fill in" details of what they are hearing (and that their memories of the speaker don't distinguish between what they actually heard and what they supplied themselves). When students retold a folk tale he had given them to read, Bartlett found, they added some details (for instance, where the story read ``that Indian has been hit,'' some students recalled an Indian being killed, others an Indian being hit by an arrow). They also changed some unfamiliar facts (making the story's Indians "row" their canoe like proper English undergraduates). You can try it yourself: Read the story here, then re-tell it in a couple of days from memory, then compare what you've written or recorded to the original.

Yet these people felt sure that their memories of the story were accurate. They didn't notice the difference between what they had read and what they had supplied themselves. Why such confidence? Bartlett proposed that the mind understands the world by means of "schemas"—mental maps that relate actions and objects to each other. Once learned, the schema works rather like a form with blanks to be filled in. Once I know you're talking about Indians and canoes, I "fill in" arrows and moccasins even if you don't mention them (and I if you bring in samurai swords I might miss it, because those don't fit the schema).

Perhaps Hasson et al.'s paper, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, has touched on the physiological correlates of Bartlett's schemas. Perhaps, too, it has pointed to the physiological basis for the pleasure people take in synchronized activities—singing together in tune, marching together in time, doing the "wave." If "neural coupling" is essential to understanding others, then it would make sense that people would find it pleasurable and seek to create it.

Stephens, G., Silbert, L., & Hasson, U. (2010). Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1008662107

​There are two kinds of failure – but only one is honorable

Malcolm Gladwell teaches "Get over yourself and get to work" for Big Think Edge.

Big Think Edge
  • Learn to recognize failure and know the big difference between panicking and choking.
  • At Big Think Edge, Malcolm Gladwell teaches how to check your inner critic and get clear on what failure is.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.
Keep reading Show less

This is the best (and simplest) world map of religions

Both panoramic and detailed, this infographic manages to show both the size and distribution of world religions.

(c) CLO / Carrie Osgood
Strange Maps
  • At a glance, this map shows both the size and distribution of world religions.
  • See how religions mix at both national and regional level.
  • There's one country in the Americas without a Christian majority – which?
Keep reading Show less

Top vets urge dog lovers to stop buying pugs and bulldogs

Pugs and bulldogs are incredibly trendy, but experts have massive animal welfare concerns about these genetically manipulated breeds. 

'No nose, no thermoregulation, no health, no welfare.' Photo by terriermandotcom.blogspot.com
popular

Pugs, Frenchies, boxers, shih-tzus and other flat-faced dog breeds have been trending for at least the last decade, thanks to higher visibility (usually in a celebrity's handbag), an increase in city living (smaller dogs for smaller homes), and possibly even the fine acting of Frank the Pug in 1997's Men in Black. We're not ruling it out. These small, specialty pure breeds are seen as the pinnacle of cuteness – they have friendly personalities, endearing odd looks, and are perfect for Stranger Things video montages.

Keep reading Show less
Image source: Topical Press Agency / Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Though we know today that his policies eventually ended the Great Depression, FDR's election was seen as disastrous by some.
  • A group of wealthy bankers decided to take things into their own hands; they plotted a coup against FDR, hoping to install a fascist dictator in its stead.
  • Ultimately, the coup was brought to light by General Smedley Butler and squashed before it could get off the ground.
Keep reading Show less