Greg Stephens, Lauren Silbert and Uri Hasson are Princeton University neuroscientists who in 2010 conducted a series of experiments showing that an audience’s brains light up (imagine they are all in a fMRI machine) the same way as the presenter’s brain when she tells a story. In their words, “Speaker and listener brain activity exhibits widespread coupling during communication.” The mere fact that our brain activity gets in sync when we share a story is pretty amazing but there are a couple of other findings which might be even more important. More on that later. But let’s start with what they did.
Their experiment (*1) starts with a young woman telling an unrehearsed story about her prom while she is hooked up to a fMRI machine–not the easiest task when telling a gripping story. They recorded her story and her brain activity. Her tale took about 15 minutes to tell.
Here’s my potted version of her story (you can read the full transcript in the extended version of the paper). It starts with the storyteller promising Charles she will go to the prom with him and then how she falls in love with another boy, Amir, and promptly forgets about her promise until Charles reminds her – awkward. She decides to keep her promise and on the big day she goes scuba diving with her family and the boat breaks down and she only gets home with five minutes to get ready for the dance. Prom night was tricky because Amir was there and she planned to hook up with him for the after-party but he was getting plastered so she had to drive him to the after-party while he played air guitar. They then see an accident and get distracted (probably by a sizzling guitar solo) and crash into the already smashed cars. The police question her and she gets a lucky break. They’re sent home without charge.
With that story duly recorded the researchers choose 12 people and asked each subject to listen to it while they lay in the fMRI tunnel. The first thing the researchers noticed was that the brain activity of the storyteller matched the brain activity of the listener–the same parts of the brain lit up on the fMRI. And as you would expect, there was a small time lag as the listener comprehended the story. The researchers were seeing the brain activity between the speaker and listener synchronise.
To test whether the listener was really responding to what was being said and not just responding to noise, they also recorded a version of the story in Russian and played this to their listening subjects. The result: when the story was in Russian there was no brain activity correlation. The listener had no idea what was being said.
Personally I think this next finding is the most significant. As I’ve said, you’d expect the brain activity of the listener to lag because it takes a moment to comprehend what’s being said. Remarkably, however, the researchers found many times when the brain activity of the listener preceded what was said. The listener was predicting what was coming next–something you can only do listening to a story. And here’s the kicker. The subjects who did more predicting did better at the comprehension test they did after they heard the story. Stories are meaningful, and really engaging stories where we are trying to predict what happens next are even more meaningful.
My one frustration with this research, however, is that the researchers seem to only select a story as their example of communication accidently because they didn’t go the next step and test the difference between what happens when a story is told compared to when it is a non-story such as an opinion. So I emailed Uri Hasson, the designated correspondence author for this research, and set out my concern. Here is his reply: “We didn’t quantify the level of B2B coupling for different communication styles so I can’t tell you the answer yet, but I share your intuition that story telling will evoke tighter coupling.”
(*1) Stephens, G.J., Silbert, L.J. & Hasson, U. 2010, ‘Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 107, no. 32, pp. 14425-30.