February 22, 2021

The Rhythm of Communication

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In this TED talk, Uri Hasson(Princeton Neuroscience Institute) pulls back the curtain on what happens in the brain of a person telling a story and in the brain of a person listening to the same story. He and his team have used fMRI to measure what happens when a person tells a story and what happens when a person listens to that same story.

In a storyteller’s brain, there is a characteristic activity pattern that emerges as they tell their story. Now here’s the amazing part: that same activity or brainwave pattern can be seen in the brains of the audience! This phenomenon is known as Neural Entrainment, and can be thought of as the counterpart of Physical Entrainment(e.g., tapping along to a song’s rhythm). Even more astonishing is that the characteristic pattern of neural entrainment that appeared when the listener heard the story will emerge again when the listener shares the story with another person!

An image of a person at a table sharing a story.
Storytellers can convey their story in engaging images

Vocabulary aside, this research demonstrates that engaging communication really does produce a recognizable brainwave pattern in both producers and receivers. One implication here is that when we say people are on the same wavelength, or that they ‘got’ the message, we may be recognizing the moment of neural entrainment the same way that a musician watches for the audience to start tapping their feet and nodding along to the music they are playing.

An image of a person explaining something in a meeting.
Storytelling is a skill you can use throughout your life