Close conversation really is a meeting of minds

Behind the inevitable allusions to Star Trek, this is an interesting story: scientific evidence that the brain waves of someone listening closely to another person’s speech can synchronise with them.

The evidence comes from fMRI scans of 11 people’s brains as they listened to a woman recounting a story.

The scans showed that the listeners’ brain patterns tracked those of the storyteller almost exactly, though trailed 1 to 3 seconds behind. But in some listeners, brain patterns even preceded those of the storyteller.

“We found that the participants’ brains became intimately coupled during the course of the ‘conversation’, with the responses in the listener’s brain mirroring those in the speaker’s,” says Uri Hasson of Princeton University.

Hasson’s team monitored the strength of this coupling by measuring the extent of the pattern overlap. Listeners with the best overlap were also judged to be the best at retelling the tale. “The more similar our brain patterns during a conversation, the better we understand each other,” Hasson concludes.

Apparently (and completely unsurprisingly) an unfamiliar language acts as a barrier to this synchronisation – if you can’t understand the person who’s speaking, you can’t “click” with them. This is probably the best argument for a single global language that I can think of… but I wonder if poor comprehension of the same language would produce similar results to a completely foreign language?

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