Study: The Brains of Storytellers And Their Listeners Actually Sync Up

By Andrew Moseman | July 27, 2010 10:30 am

BrainYou may be talking and I may be listening, but our brains look strikingly similar.

That’s the conclusion of a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week. After conducting brain scans of a woman telling a story off the cuff and then of 11 people listening to a recording of her, researchers Greg Stephens and Uri Hasson say they found that the same parts of the brains showed activation at the same time, suggesting a deep connection between talker and listener.

Graduate student Lauren Silbert was the team’s storytelling guinea pig. She recounted tales of high school, like deciding whom to take to prom, while undergoing an fMRI scan.

As Silbert spoke about her prom experience, the same areas lit up in her brain as in the brains of her listeners. In most brain regions, the activation pattern in the listeners’ brains came a few seconds after that seen in Silbert’s brain. But a few brain areas, including one in the frontal lobe, actually lit up before Silbert’s, perhaps representing listeners’ anticipating what she was going to say next, the team says [ScienceNOW].

When the neuroscientists scanned the same listeners while they heard a story in Russian that they couldn’t understand, the coupling of brain regions didn’t show up.

The study certainly comes with caveats: Its sample size is small, and scientists don’t know exactly what causes the synchronization, nor the exact function of the brain regions in question to any more specificity than “language.” But Stephens and Hasson argue that their findings speak to conceptual common ground people must meet to make conversation possible:

“If I say, ‘Do you want a coffee?’ you say, ‘Yes please, two sugars.’ You don’t say, ‘Yes, please put two sugars in the cup of coffee that is between us,’” said Hasson. “You’re sharing the same lexical items, grammatical constructs and contextual framework. And this is happening not just abstractly, but literally in the brain” [].

The findings leave neuroscientists with a host of directions in which they could go. Hasson says his team’s next step is to go beyond one talker and a bunch of listeners and actually study people engaged in dialogue.

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Image: iStockphoto

  • Rhacodactylus

    It makes total sense, to have the same thoughts and share the same feelings there would be the same brain activation. I wonder if these results would hold true with stories that were fictional, or more theme based. Or say, with a very descriptive novella would our brains maybe even imitate the brain of the “subject” of the story rather than the teller?

  • Anastasia

    I wonder if watching an art performance would also cause brain synchronization, perhaps, due to mirror neurons.

  • bigjohn756

    Oooo! Telepathy…

  • Amos Zeeberg (Discover Web Editor)

    Interesting points, @Rhacodactylus and @Anastasia. I suspect this would only work in face-to-face interactions, but that’s a guess. I’ll get our in-house scientists to research this right away…

  • Rebecca

    Wow! Fascinating stuff! How about listener as reader? Could the brain of reader sync with brain of author?

  • Eric

    This has interesting potential implications for crisis communications. If the communicator is panicked, under the sway of the hind brain’s “fight, flight, flee” response, does he or she trigger panic in others?

  • Lee-Ellen Marvin

    Fascinating news! Those of us who tell stories professionally have sensed a deep connection with our listeners that seems mysterious. Some professional storytellers have observed that their audiences breathe together during intense stories, but this goes quite a bit further. The study might also explain the light trance state that listeners seem to fall into during storytelling events. It certainly fits with my favorite definition of storytelling as the communication of experience. If only there was a way to measure the brain activities of a storyteller and listeners in a live, face-to-face storytelling event!

  • Kat Jaibur

    Yay. Science is proving what storytellers have always known. For some great stories, ad lib: One of my favorites: This one by Alan Rabinowitz.

  • Diana Ravagli

    It amazes me to hear that finaly we’re at a point where this can be scientifically proven. To me it seams obvious because any time a person places attention onto someone whether it be a story or a play, he/she is wanting to create a personal relation to it and for that an internal representation is needed, thus prompting the brain to be stimulated in those places. In the process though, the variables would be the intention of the person meaning: in going to a play, someone can be seeing it from a place of witnessing, so little personal investment, hence less mental involvement; however if the same person sees the play from a “pretend it’s me” a more personal involvement, the likelihood of the same brain patterns would emerge, even the same muscles fire up.
    We’ve come to a point where science keeps pointing us in the direction of intention; it’s all a matter of where and how we focus our attention which is where creation is sparked!

  • Umi Sinha

    Eric Says:
    July 28th, 2010 at 8:29 am


    I have done an exercise in corporate storytelling courses where each person takes it in turn to come into the group, in a pretended office situation, and change the mood, e.g. ‘Just heard there are going to be some redundancies,’ followed by “Hey guys, we’ve won the contract”, followed by ‘Some bad news guys. Reenu’s husband died yesterday,’ etc. It’s extraordinary to see how fast (literally seconds) the group mood changes and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if exactly this was happening in mob hysteria situations.

  • Norah

    We storytellers often describe a successful performance by saying that our audience was “entranced” by our story. After a storytelling performance in a school, I sometimes have the opportunity to break it down for students. Explaining what just occurred, I might say, “I used words to transmit the images in my mind and you received my words and turned them into images, feelings and experience in your minds.” I tell students this is the magic of language and story. “Our heads are connected – like wifi ! Only without the computers, iPhones, modems and DSL.” It seems that brain imaging shows my wifi metaphor to be less metaphoric and more a scientific description of the actual process, than I knew.

    People at our story slams ( find it hard to describe their experience of listening to stories – but they know something primordial and essentially human has been shared.
    It is not the same on video, but you can get an idea of the experience here:

  • Kendall Haven

    This is not overly surprising. The research studies I have pieced together establish quite compellingly that humans are evolutionarily hardwired to think, to make sense, to understand, and to remember and recall all in specific story terms—terms defined by the regions and purposes of those specific brian regions linked in that neural story net. We humans process incoming experiential or narrative information by running it through that story net en route from sensory organ to frontal lobes (the conscious mind). This study confirms that this neural story net activates both for teller (the one recalling the story from memory) and the receiver (the one processing the story and prepping it for placement into memory). It is fascinating to me that a cornucopia of hard science supports the contention that storytellers have made for hundreds of years: humans listen to, receive, and process information delivered in story form differently (and more deeply) than they do to the same information delivered through any other narrative structure.

  • Carol

    It would be interesting to perform this same experiment with presumed ADA “listeners” as well as “listeners” diagnosed with any of the various levels on the Autism spectrum.

  • Cheryl

    I can only imagine similar results would be found if a study were done of the brains of people playing Pass-Around Storytelling: The Shared Storytelling Game ( Pass-Around Storytelling is a shared improvisational storytelling game. There is a visceral experience of deep connection when two or more players work as a team to build an original oral story together. This creative sync is referred to as a the “magic” of collaborative storytelling by the creators of the game — Cheryl Chitayat, a Psychologist and Dafna Soltes Stein, an Artist-Educator. They are known to say, “Pass-Around the Magic with Pass-Around Storytelling” and “When you touch the magic you know it!” Perhaps part of this magic is the feeling of our brains aligning!

  • laura simms

    it is my experience that when a story begins there is an engagement occurring beneath logic where mind functions on a multiplicity of levels simoultaneously and the actual listening is not conceptual but in total visceral, imaginative response.. akin to meditation states.. wide awake, thinking and feeling, and imagining .. and this engagement allows for access to deeper levels of unconditional mind .. I think that is why it is as if we are both audience and listener bonded in such a unique way.. the more unbiased and present the storyteller, not forcing a point or involved in explanation – the more this more natural state of awareness is experienced.. so satisfying. Telling stories in the tents in haiti to women who arrived depleted and depressed .. I watched them come alive like wilted flowers taking water.. but here it felt like being self nourished by not having to focus on personal loops of fixed mental narrative.. as if they were moisturized by life force.. distracted beautifully from concerns to be fully engaged.. it is as Lee Ellen Marvin said an experience. It is also reciprocal dynamic. not only do audiences often breathe together, but there is a very settled sense of deep listening as if silence arose from within.

  • Carole Brooks Platt, Ph.D.

    I used to do an activity in my advanced French classes where I would play evocative music, like Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie, and pass a sheet of paper around the room. The students would create a Surrealist poem, folding the paper over their line without seeing the one that came before. The interesting thing is that a poem would appear that had real coherence, even thematically. I’m sure the music was a large part of the neural spur, but group synchronization was indeed happening.

    I also believe that synchronization between the cerebral hemispheres creates a trance state and that people engaging in automatic behaviors like séances and Ouija boards get into sync with each other and can make telepathic connections. I am writing a book on this and have articles accessible on my Web site, with further information in my blog posts

  • Pravin Yadav

    Storytelling is basically a form of performing art. It can be very well explained using physics.There are 3 interrelated chained phenomena- Transmission (Performer),Absorption (audience) and Reflection (Emotional response). I don’t have to explain it in detail.
    Bulb illuminates when the circuit is complete. Live response from audience challenges and boosts artist’s creativity. Because of the same reason, it is often observed that artist excels and exhibits unplanned ultimate performance in live concerts rather than in practice sessions. That’s how audience becomes an integral part of artist’s creativity.


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