grayscale photo of people sitting on chair

100 Things You Should Know About People: #87 — Speaker and Listener Brains Sync



picture of people listening to a speaker at a conference

When you listen to someone talking your brain starts working in sync with the speaker. Greg Stephens (2010) put participants in his research study in an fMRI machine and had them record or listen to recordings of other people talking. What he found is that as someone is listening to someone else talk, the brains patterns of the two people start to couple, or mirror each other. There is a slight delay, which corresponds to the time it takes for the communication to occur. Several different brain areas were synced. He compared this with having people listen to someone talk in a language they did not understand. In that case the brains do not sync up.

Syncing + anticipation = understanding — In Stephen’s study, the more the brains were synced up the more the listener understood the ideas and message from the speaker. And by watching what parts of the brain were lighting up, Stephens could see that the parts of the brain that have to do with prediction and anticipation were active. The more active they were, the more successful was the communication.

Social parts light up too — Stephens noted that the parts of the brain that have to do with social interaction were also synced, including areas are known to be involved in processing social information crucial for successful  communication, including the capacity to discern the beliefs, desires, and goals of others.

What do you think? Have you been synced with any speakers lately?

Stephens, Greg, Silbert, L., & Hasson, U. (2010). Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, July 27, 2010.


5 responses to “100 Things You Should Know About People: #87 — Speaker and Listener Brains Sync”

  1. Kate Avatar

    Wow! Brain syncing – that’s interesting! It reminds me of a study I read at university – that there is something linguists call ‘mutual intelligibility’ that is not entirely dependent on actual spoken language. The evidence quoted was that sometimes speakers of linguistically similar languages say they cannot understand each other (such cases often included barriers such as social or ethnic prejudices), while there are speakers of less similar languages that claim to understand each other quite well.

    I teach English in Japan, and one thing I’m really good at is “guessing” what a student is struggling to say. Sometimes I joke about being telepathic, but I guess we’re just brain-syncing.

  2. Leigh Avatar

    Interesting. I wonder what happens to people with an auditory processing disorder?

  3. Anonymous Avatar

    This is interesting. I’d like to know if people who are detached or depressed are not making that connection with others. And if so would spending more time with them and engaging in an interactive conversation help them gain that ability?

  4. Petra Avatar

    Very interesting, i must check this next time i will listen a speech.

  5. William Avatar

    I once sat and watched a several hour long presentation at my school that was all international students, many with broken English.

    My English was just as bad for the rest of the night… unless I made a conscious effort to speak correctly.

    I also would pause to think of words just as they did, even though I usually don’t have to pause to think of words mid-sentence (obviously)… my brain must have slowed town to understand them better.

    I noticed that it was an amazing phenomenon then, but I wasn’t sure if anyone else had observed anything similar… this seems to fit.

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