Syncing Brainwaves Through the Fourth Wall

Photo: "Quantum Brainwaves" by aLansong! from Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

Photo: "Quantum Brainwaves" by aLansong! from Flickr. Used under Creative Commons license.

What is actually neurologically involved in communication? What does it take for a speaker to convey something to a listener, and what does it take for that listen to both comprehend what’s being said and remember it?

In a paper published in August 2010 in the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS) called (dryly) “Speaker-listener neural coupling underlikes successful communication,” three researchers from Princeton University detail an experiment that basically showed (as the title gives away) that listeners who successfully remember communications and can recount them later actually sync with the speaker on a brain-to-brain level.  Or, as they put it in the paper, “During successful communication, speakers’ and listeners’ brains exhibit joint, temporally coupled, response patterns.”

I find this fascinating.  What the researchers did was they took fMRIs of a speaker and a series of listeners as the speaker relayed a personal story.  (In the Radiolab podcast segment where I initially heard about this work, it turns out the story was about a personal relationship, so was both highly singular to the speaker and had elements that could be more universal.)  fMRIs allow researchers to look at tiny sections of the brain called voxels over time, and on a voxel-by-voxel level to see how synchronized the brains of the speaker and the listener got.  Turns out that, in a variety of areas of the brain, the neural activity of speaker and listener actually “couples.”  Areas include those associated for auditory comprehension, speech production, semantic processing, social relationship comprehension, and what’s called “mirroring,” in which the brain engages as though doing an activity (say drinking coffee) even if you’re actually watching someone else drink the coffee.  This only happens when the listener has the skills to understand the attempted communication (i.e. it doesn’t happen if the speaker is speaking Russian and you don’t understand Russian) — and what’s even more fascinating is that, with varying levels of commonality, almost all of these effects happen across speakers.  In other words, by looking at specific parts of the brains of many listeners, you can actually seem parallel processing of a story in real time.

In my mind, telling a story is about a half-step from a monologue, and maybe a step-and-a-half from a full-scale theatrical show.  Later in the paper, the researchers note that “the extent of the listener’s anticipatory brain responses was highly correlated with the level of understanding, indicating that successful communication requires the active engagement of the listener.”  This is a really science-language-laden way of saying that if you don’t engage your audience with your work, then your message literally won’t be processed as effectively by their brains.  In fact, the listeners that were best at recounting the story afterward actually demonstrated brain activity that anticipated the story – they were literally a neural step ahead of the speaker. 

In the discussion section of the paper, the authors expand on two concepts that I think are particularly apropos to the work we do in the arts.  The first is what’s called interactive linguistic alignment theory.  Sort of scary words, but basically it means what the study showed — that during successful communication, the speaker and listener’s mental faculties become more aligned than usual on a lot of different levels including phonetic, phonological, lexical, snytactic, and semantic (or, in plain language, in terms of sound, meaning and structure of the words).  The neural coupling at its most successful allows individual listeners to actually anticipate what’s coming — which smacks loudly of a phenomenon I’ve written about briefly before that Alan Brown calls “captivation” and psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (yes, I copied and pasted that, and no I can’t pronounce it) calls “flow,” which is when a person is completely absorbed in the activity at hand.  Being linguistically aligned (or captivated) also, per this paper, leads to a higher level of comprehension–and a better ability to process and recount what has happened.  In Brown’s research, captivation has in turn led to more overall satisfaction with the experience and a higher stated likelihood that the person will come back for more.  So, suddenly, neural coupling doesn’t seem quite so esoteric.

The other concept, which I touched on earlier, is this idea of mirror neurons and mirroring.  Per the paper, in an earlier experiment by other researchers in 2001 (since replicated), “Mirror neurons discharge both when a monkey performs a specific action and when it observes the same action performed by another.”  In an earlier post I discussed a TED Talk given by David Brooks on the social nature of our humanity.  Part of that talk that I didn’t specifically reference, but seems apropos here, is when he said:

“We’re social animals, not rational animals.  We wmerge out of relationships and we are deeply interpenetrated, one with another.  And so when we see another person, we reenact in our minds what we see in their minds.  When we watch a car chase in a movie, it’s almost as if we are subtly having a car chase.  When we watch pornography, it’s a little like having sex, though probably not as good.”

The research out of Princeton, which builds on other studies that have looked at common neurological responses across people watching movies in a group or listening to a story, reminds me that when we say we are reflecting back the human experience on the audience, we’re not just blowing smoke.  While no one has yet done the research of hooking up a bunch of theatregoers to fMRI machines (the skullcaps, I’ve been told, are both prohibitively expensive and painful), a lot of this research suggests that the storytelling mode that is so central to live theatre is literally causing brains to hum in tune, creating a flickering synchonicity across audience members that allows us all to experience our commonality and engage in communal discourse–even while sitting silent in a darkened room.

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  1. says


    This is a fascinating perspective, and I thank you for writing about it. It seems to me, though, that the catch-22 of all this is that the same neurological process may occur whether or not the speaker and listener are physically in the same room (as in theatre) or if one is present in the remote sense of film, television, or even telling a story over the phone. I agree that “art makes us better humans,” but the decline in audiences for live performances suggests that people are getting the mirroring process they need from non-theatre storytelling.

    • Pam Jacobson says

      Is it the difference between “fast food” (film and TV) and ‘Nutrition” (theater)? Mirroring is met in both but the issue is quality. Americans are choosing lesser quality in all aspects of living. Will the next generation not recognize quality when it is encountered – or is it that way already?

  2. says

    Mame, you know, I don’t know about varying levels/types of communications – the study in PNAS references one that used subjects watching a movie and saw some similar effect (and in this case, for the sake of scientific consistency, the subjects were all actually hearing an audio recording of the speaker tell the story), so group experience, and ass you mention, proximity to the speaker, are certainly challenges. And the liveness factor, I imagine, would make this a very hard thing to measure. If, for example, the same story were told repeatedly to a rotating audience of one, there’s no way to ensure that the story didn’t vary in some particular, but important way that makes one person sync more than another. In a way, except for the obvious technical nightmare, strapping a bunch of people in one room up while they watch either live theatre event or a movie (or, ideally, both) would be a fascinating look at that core tenet of theatre artists all over the country that our work is special, and valuable, and worth the extra cost, because it’s LIVE – and that’s somehow more connective. That idea, I think, it’s alongside a lot of other assumptions we make as theatre artists about the value of the work we do. It’s interesting to know that there’s at least some possibility one could actually engage the question though, I think.