Neural Coupling, Brain Syncing, and Communication
Invited post by Kathleen Friesen, Friesen Group
Imagine a tall glass of ice water, shimmering clear in a tall glass, ice clinking against the sides, cold to the touch, refreshing as you swallow. Although you didn’t just actually take a drink, the circuits in your brain that are used to seeing the glass, hearing the ice clink, feeling the cold surface, lifting the glass, and swallowing the water were activated as you imagined the experience.
Brains in Sync
People sit next to each other in a movie theater. As they watch the movie and experience the environment, their brain circuits fire in similar patterns. If someone in a room says the word “dog,” everyone’s brain circuits dedicated to the knowledge of dogs are activated – even though there is no dog in the room.
We know that speaking and listening is a mutual activity. Research in Interpersonal Neurobiology has been demonstrating these connections for a decade. But what do we know about more everyday conversations, ones that we might have in the break room or at the dinner table?
Princeton University researchers asked that question and designed a method to discover what happens in our brains during normal conversation. The process involved having a speaker tell an unrehearsed personal story, speaking as if to a friend or colleague. While they told the story, the researchers used an fMRI to map the speaker’s brain circuits. Then they had multiple persons listen to the recorded story while inside an fMRI. In addition to the brain scans, the listeners were assessed for comprehension.
The scans showed that as listeners heard the story, their brains began to mirror or “couple” with the brain of the speaker. For some listeners, there was a slight delay in mirroring the speaker’s brain. But as the level of comprehension increased, the level of mirroring increased – eliminating the delay. In the highest level of assessed comprehension, the listener’s brain scans actually preceded the speaker’s.
The experiment was repeated using the same story, but told in Russian to English speakers. The resulting brain scans showed no significant coupling in any brain region between speaker and listener. The coupling is a result of understanding each other. It is the physical and neural basis of mutual communication. Our brains synchronize when we’re communicating most effectively, we “click.”
A Tool for Better Communication
While each person’s brain is unique, the act of communication can align speaker and listener brain circuits. We know when we are “clicking” with a person or an audience. And we know when things are falling flat. How can a speaker increase the chances that the highest levels of coupling will occur?
The Process Communication Model® (PCM) offers an effective process to increase communication. It is designed to “promote understanding, recognition, prediction, and action.” When listeners are able to predict what the speaker will say next, the greatest level of brain coupling and comprehension occurs. Speakers and organization leaders can use PCM to increase the probabilities of coupling – of clicking and being in sync with their listeners. The researchers pose a challenge at the end of their original peer reviewed article suggesting that the next frontier is to find the behavioral correlates of neural coupling – in other words – what can people actually do to increase communication effectiveness and brain sync-ing? PCM might be one of the best current options available.
Hasson, U. (2010) I can make your brain look like mine. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved on Nov. 22, 2010 from http://hbr.org/2010/12/defend-your-research-i-can-make-your-brain-look-like-mine/ar/1
Stephens, G. J., Silbert, L. J., & Hasson, U. (2010). Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. PNAS, August 10, 2010, 32: 14425-14430.
Kathleen Friesen is a Principal at Friesen Group. She blogs at www.friesengroup.net and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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