Good conversation results in a 'mind meld'

Jul 27, 2010 by Lin Edwards report
The speaker-listener neural coupling within the right hemisphere. Image credit: Greg J. Stephens/PNAS.

(PhysOrg.com) -- Researchers studying human conversation have discovered the brains of listeners and speakers become synchronized, and this "neural coupling" makes for effective communication. In essence, the participants’ brains connect in a kind of "mind meld."

Psychologist Uri Hasson from Princeton University wanted to find out which areas of the were active during speaking and listening to a conversation to test a hypothesis that there is more overlap between these than generally assumed. It has been noted, for example, that people taking part in conversations will often subconsciously imitate each other’s grammar, rates of speaking and even and posture.

In the first part of the experiment, graduate student Lauren Silbert placed her head in a (fMRI) machine for fifteen minutes, while she recounted an unrehearsed story from her high-school years.

The research team recorded the story using a microphone capable of filtering out the noise of the fMRI machine, and then in the second part of the experiment, a volunteer had his or her head scanned by the fMRI machine while listening to the recording.

The team found a great deal of synchronization between the activity in Silbert’s brain and in those of the 11 volunteers, with the same regions of the brains lighting up at or near the same points in the story. This finding was surprising, given the long-held belief that speaking and listening use separate areas of the brain. The areas of the brain affected were linked to language, but their exact functions are as yet unknown.

In most areas of the brain the activation pattern appeared one to three seconds after it had appeared in Silbert’s brain, but in a few other areas, including an area in the , the activation pattern appeared in the listeners’ brains before it appeared in Silbert’s, which the researchers thought could represent the listeners anticipating what was coming next in the story.

The researchers then asked the subjects to re-tell the story they had heard, and found there was a positive correlation between the strength of the neural coupling and the volunteer’s ability to recall the story details. Hasson concluded that the “more similar our brain patterns during a conversation, the better we understand each other.”

A third stage in the experiment was designed to ensure the neural coupling was not an experimental artifact. In this stage 11 volunteers - all English speakers - were asked to listen to a story told in Russian, which none of them understood. In this experiment no neural coupling was seen. A final stage of the experiment was to have the graduate student tell a different story while having her brain scanned. The results were then compared to the brain patterns of the listeners of the original story. As with the Russian story, no coupling was seen.

Hasson said the next step in the research is to design an experimental set up in which two subjects can have their brains scanned by fMRI simultaneously while they are having a conversation. He predicted that this would produce especially strong synchronization, and also speculated that neural coupling would be stronger in people talking face-to-face than in conversations over the phone or by video conferencing.

The results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal and the paper is available online.

Explore further: 'Trigger' for stress processes discovered in the brain

More information: Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication, Greg J. Stephens et al., PNAS, Published online before print , doi:10.1073/pnas.1008662107

Related Stories

Researchers find a neural signature of bilingualism

Oct 17, 2006

Dartmouth researchers have found areas in the brain that indicate bilingualism. The finding sheds new light on decades of debate about how the human brain's language centers may actually be enhanced when faced ...

MRI shows brains respond better to name brands

Nov 28, 2006

Your brain may be determining what car you buy before you've even taken a test drive. A new study gauging the brain's response to product branding has found that strong brands elicit strong activity in our brains. The findings ...

Recommended for you

'Chatty' cells help build the brain

5 hours ago

The cerebral cortex, which controls higher processes such as perception, thought and cognition, is the most complex structure in the mammalian central nervous system. Although much is known about the intricate ...

'Trigger' for stress processes discovered in the brain

20 hours ago

At the Center for Brain Research at the MedUni Vienna an important factor for stress has been identified in collaboration with the Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm (Sweden). This is the protein secretagogin ...

New research supporting stroke rehabilitation

Nov 26, 2014

Using world-leading research methods, the team of Dr David Wright and Prof Paul Holmes, working with Dr Jacqueline Williams from the Victoria University in Melbourne, studied activity in an area of the brain ...

User comments : 3

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

jorjedevis
Jul 27, 2010
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Kedas
not rated yet Jul 27, 2010
I probably misted the point but isn't it obvious if you think the same that basically the same brain area's will be used?
Not sure why they make a big difference between saying it and hearing it. It is just one way to transfer the same thinking.
Zenmaster
not rated yet Jul 27, 2010
So the more the participants are "cooperating" in an intersubjective experience, the more correlated their brain activity?
HealingMindN
5 / 5 (1) Jul 27, 2010
but in a few other areas, including an area in the frontal lobe, the activation pattern appeared in the listeners’ brains before it appeared in Silbert’s, which the researchers thought could represent the listeners anticipating what was coming next in the story...


Imagine implanting a naughty idea where the listener was expecting something else...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.