You 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” [Wired.com].
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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