Dr. Uri Hasson, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Princeton University, delivered the first seminar in the series, “Face to Face, Brain to Brain: Exploring the Mechanisms of Dyadic Social Interactions,” on Tuesday, October 4, 2011. The seminar was held in APPC’s atrium before an audience of graduate students and scholars.
Cognitive neuroscience experiments typically isolate human or animal subjects from their natural environment by placing them in a sealed quiet room where interactions occur solely with a computer screen. In everyday life, however, we spend most of our time interacting with other individuals. Using fMRI, we recently recorded the brain activity of a speaker telling an unrehearsed real-life story. To make the study as ecologically valid as possible, we instructed the speaker to speak as if telling the story to a friend. Next, we measured the brain activity of a listener hearing the recorded audio of the spoken story, thereby capturing the time-locked neural dynamics from both sides of the communication. Finally, we asked the listeners to complete a detailed questionnaire that assessed their level of comprehension. Our results indicate that during successful communication, the speaker’s and listener’s brains exhibit joint, temporally coupled, response patterns. Such neural coupling substantially diminishes in the absence of communication, for instance, when listening to an unintelligible foreign language. In addition, more extensive speaker–listener neural couplings result in more successful communication. The speaker-listener neural coupling exposes a shared neural substrate that exhibits temporally aligned response patterns across communicators. The recording of the neural responses from both the speaker brain and the listener brain opens a new window into the neural basis of interpersonal communication, and may be used to assess verbal and non-verbal forms of interaction in both human and other model systems.