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What Happens When You're On The Same Wavelength - And When You're Not

You seem to feel it instinctively when you and another person are on the 'same wavelength,' and equally so when the two of you are on completely different wavelengths.  Now, with new advances in functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), scientists at Princeton University have tested some of the theories that others have suggested for just what happens in the brain when people are on the same wavelength.

Traditional views of the communication process held that speech and listening happened in two different parts of the brain: Broca's area and Wernicke's area.   Yet studies show that communication partners unconsciously change their grammar structure, their speaking rate, and even their body postures to that of their partner.  One could say that their communication changes show empathy for each other; some call this establishing a common ground.



Neural Coupling Model by Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert, and Uri Hassonc: image from "Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication" published in PNAS.orgNeural Coupling Model by Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert, and Uri Hassonc: image from "Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication" published in PNAS.org


The team at Princeton, led by psychologist Uri Hasson, used MRI to compare the brain activation patterns of speakers and listeners.  A graduate student, Lauren Silbert, submitted to a brain scan while she spontaneously told stories from her teen years for about 15 minutes.  Eleven subjects were scanned while they listened to a recording of Ms. Silbert telling her stories, while researchers studied their brain scans and compared them to Ms. Silberts's.   They observed that the activation in the listeners' brains followed close behind those activations of Ms. Silbert's, a physiological response called neural coupling.   Not only that, but sometimes the listeners' brains fired off in the same area before Ms. Silbert's, indicating that they anticipated what she was going to say.

It was also found that the listeners who could repeat the stories had closer neural coupling with Ms. Silbert's neurons than those who didn't remember them well.

Later, the same 11 English-speaking (non-Russian speaking) persons listened to a 15 minute story told by a Russian speaker, and their brain scans did not show any neural syncing with the speaker's. 

Neuroscientist Riitta Hari of the Aalto University School of Science and Technology in Finland told Science Now, that the Princeton study was "groundbreaking."

"It shows how closely the brain functions of a speaker and a listener are connected during successful communication [and demonstrates that] listeners are active players and not only passive receivers."

Martin Pickering of the UK's University of Edinburgh agreed that the paper is "very important and original," adding that "It provides strong evidence that the neural coupling underlies the way that speakers come to understand each other."

You know, this would be a great screening test to see if couples should even consider marriage.  Doesn't it always seem that when you realize your partner doesn't listen to you, it's just after you marry?

Science Now, PNAS.org (You can read the full text of the study here.)