The power of language

One night in the summer of 1987, I was awake late at night at a mountaintop solar observatory. The town of Sunspot, New Mexico, had maybe somewhere between seventy-five and a hundred inhabitants, all of them asleep as far as I could tell, but I was restless that night, emotionally unsettled by my grandmother’s recent death. Sunspot boasted a small informal lending library, in the form of a single room full of books in one of the houses. It was a small collection but the terms of service were fantastic: You walked over any time you wanted to and borrowed what you liked. Bibliotropism drew me there that night, and I stumbled across a book by Loren Eiseley called The Firmament of Time, which is a beautifully written meditation on the human race’s progress in understanding the place it occupies in the universe. As I read, Eiseley seemed to be speaking directly to me, offering an inspiring view of human life and the meaning to be found in the scientific endeavor. My mind was dazzled and calmed by his words, and eventually I relaxed enough to be able to sleep that night.

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how really amazing communication is: that facts, ideas, opinions, and emotions can be conveyed from one human brain to another. (On my pessimistic days, I wonder how well any brain communicates anything to another brain beyond things like, “Ham and cheese, easy on the mayo.”) Eiseley had been dead for 17 years when I read that book, but that didn’t matter. I could still incorporate the products of his mental activities into my own brain. How cool is that?

A recent study has examined how the spoken word affects the brains of listeners using a recorded story. The speaker’s brain patterns were recorded by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) as she told the story, and then the brain patterns of listeners were examined as they heard the story played back to them. Various control conditions were also examined (listening to a story in a language the listener didn’t understand, or listening to a different story told by the same speaker). When the listeners understood the story, patterns of activity over wide areas of their brains were similar to those of the original story-teller; this didn’t happen in the control conditions. A closer match in neural activity was linked to a better understanding of the story. This guest blog post at Scientific American has more details.

The comments bring out a couple of interesting points. For example, while it’s tempting to think of the speaker as controlling the listener’s brain, the interaction between listener and story-teller was probably at least as much about collaboration as it was about control. In some instances where the listener was really on top of the story, activity in the listener’s prefrontal cortex preceded similar activity in the speaker’s brain, indicating anticipation of what was going to come next. The listener was actively participating in entering the story. (And on a related note, we’ve all experienced the limits of language in trying to convey ideas or information to an unreceptive brain.) When I read the article, my first thought was to wonder whether the same thing holds for writing; this question, and a similar question about music, also came up in the comments. (Answer: We don’t know yet, but the method used in this study should be applicable to those questions as well.)

Anyway, the whole thing gives you something interesting to think about the next time you talk to someone. And I have to wonder what’s happening in your brain right now as you read these words, and how much it might resemble what’s going on in mine as I write them.

The paper is available for free online (for now, anyway):
Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication,
Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert, and Uri Hasson. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, published online before print, July 26, 2010, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1008662107