Story-telling brings brains into sync

03 March 2017
Posted by Ricky Nathvani.

Researchers have found that the brain activity in someone listening to a story bears similarity to the person telling it, but only when they genuinely understand what’s being said.

By using a newly developed, portable headset containing an array of sensors, Drexel University researchers monitored the brains of both story-tellers and their audiences to investigate how regions of the brain align when we try to communicate. Another, surprising finding also indicated that the brain activity synchronisation was correlated with how well the story was understood by the listener.

“When there is successful verbal communication, the listener’s brain activity actually follows and synchronises with the speaker’s brain activity because they go through the same abstract stages [of thought],” says Hasan Ayaz, lead researcher on the study.

Several speakers were tasked with recalling an earlier personal experience in an unscripted story lasting between 3 and 5 minutes. By making an audio recording and monitoring which parts of the brain became active during the story-telling, the researchers were able to compare the activity profile with the responses elicited in the brains of the listeners. The listeners were also asked to recount the story themselves afterwards to confirm that they had understood.

The brain region monitored in the experiments, which is called the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for executive decision making, working memory and attention.

Those listeners with the best understanding of the stories also showed the highest levels of brain synchronisation with the speakers, an effect that researchers had not anticipated finding. A control study was also performed with speakers who relayed stories in Turkish, a language that none of the listeners understood. In these cases, no synchronisation was found.

In recent years, most “neuroimaging” studies that peer into the inner workings of our brains, have relied on large, cumbersome experiments conducted in settings such as MRI machines. These environments are notably artificial and arguably don’t allow for a true assessment of how the brain reacts in the everyday world.

The new monitoring device resembles a headband, resembling those used by tennis players, containing several infrared light sources and monitors. These are then used to measure changes in how oxygenated blood is, in areas where the brain is becoming active, since these areas typically require more oxygen. By monitoring how the brain operates using a portable device, unlike the previously encumbering MRI studies, the hope is to conduct field experiments on social interactions in more realistic contexts.

“We can now use this in the field, in office environments, in schools between teachers and pupils or even in the doctor’s office between a doctor and a patient. I believe there are many opportunities but there is a lot of work that needs to be done in terms of assessing this information and looking at it in real time. Then we’d need to provide feedback to individuals so they can fine tune their communication. In these exciting times, technology is enabling us in unique ways.”

By monitoring when communication is effective and when it isn’t, the hope is to coach people on how to obtain understanding in their audience. While this is patently useful in professional environments, one of the examples used in the study was a story told by a stand-up comedian, hinting that the research might even shed light on how to deliver that joke even more effectively next time you’re at the pub with your friends.

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