In a previous post, I suggested that writers were brain manipulators. Now I'm refining the description. It's more like a Vulcan mind meld.
A recent experiment by scientists at Princeton University shows neural coupling (coordinated brain activity) between a storyteller and a listener. The researchers used fMRI to scan a speaker’s brain as she told an unrehearsed story about an experience from high school. They then scanned 10 volunteers as they listened to a recording of the story.
The basic result was that listener brain activity trailed the speaker’s brain activity with a slight delay. Regions that process language and meaning showed a delay of around 1.5-3 seconds. This matches up with what you would expect during a conversation. The speaker thinks about something, says it, and the listener hears and understands it a few seconds later.
But it gets more interesting when you look more closely at delay times. Not all regions showed this delay – most notably, the low level brain regions that respond to sound. In both the speaker and the listener, these regions were time-locked to the sounds of the speaker’s words. This makes sense because the speaker doesn't hear the words any earlier than the listener does, so they process the sounds at the same time.
But here's the coolest result. Some regions in the listener's brain actually predicted the speaker's activity, as if the listener was anticipating parts of the story. Later tests of listener comprehension support this. The more predictive activity in a listener’s brain, the better she scored on comprehension questions after the experiment.
As usual, I try to draw some writing applications from these results. I have two thoughts.
First, it's a good reminder for writers that the story starts in your brain. Sure, the reader will add his own experiences and details, but you provide the raw materials. Have you ever had an experience where you got lazy and wrote a scene without a clear idea of what you were writing, only to have critique partners tell you that the descriptions were flat or the characters weren't believable? If your story is vague and dull in your imagination, your audience will also find it vague and dull.
Second, the correlations with listener comprehension and brain activation remind me that not all audience members are the same. Every book will have some readers that follow passively and other readers that engage and predict. Is it possible to write a story that satisfies both types of readers? What do you think?
Stephens GJ, Silbert LJ, & Hasson U (2010). Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 20660768
Vulcan mind meld? Awesome! :D It makes perfect sense, of course.ReplyDelete
You might like to drop by my blog tomorrow, for a little science-of-writing from a different field (computational linguistics, unsurprisingly, given that it's me).
Very cool how the brain activity matches up! Just more proof that the writer has to be their story's first fan :)ReplyDelete
This is so cool!ReplyDelete
(I always knew I was controlling the minds of small children...now I have proof! mwahahahaha!)
Wow, that is fascinating, thank you for the post.ReplyDelete
I don't know if it's truly possible to appeal to everyone with the same story- perhaps this is why they say that taste in writing is so subjective? Perhaps it takes a certain kind of brain to engage with a certain type of story- or writer's storytelling style- and that's why the ones that more people can relate to on some level at least are the mass-market phenoms? I think personality type comes into play here too (MBTI or KTT) because people of different 'types' process information so differently.
Lots to think about...love it.
This is wicked. My brain hurts a little reading it, but it's still wicked.ReplyDelete
Great post! Was curious though whether the article happened to mention (or identify the possible effect of) schematas i.e. whether familiarity with the story script resulted in greater predictability and comprehension results?ReplyDelete
You would think the more familiar the reader is with the script and scenario the more likely they are be interested and invested in the story line itself.
This is good to know. I've always wanted to use my psychic powers for ill. Now I know I can do it via writing as well as face to face. Excellent! *steeples fingers*'ReplyDelete
Victoria -- Nothing in this paper about it, but it'd be an interesting followup.ReplyDelete
Hey Livia, I was telling my friend Lindsey this morning about this article. We got to talking about the popular test that has been going around (in spurts) where the words are mixed up EXCEPT for the first and last, wherein our brains CAN read the message.ReplyDelete
She and I wondered, in terms of children reading the same test, have their been studies done to show when, in the brain's life cycle, this change takes place and we're able to figure out words even though the letters are mixed up? Could a child not familiar with the words still somehow figure it out? :)
That is fascinating research.ReplyDelete
Zach -- good question. I'm not aware of that study being done. But I'm also not what it means that people can still figure it out. Does it mean something about our brains, or does it just mean that there's a lot of redundancy in language (meaning, context clues, words that are different enough) so that we can figure it out despite the misspellings? Hard to say.ReplyDelete
This is awesome! May just be my inspiration for a post on the Lit Lab tomorrow. Thanks for sharing this!ReplyDelete
I think a good storyteller is someone who engages both passive and active readers. It's definitely possible. :)
Livia, thanks so much! And I'm excited to have discovered your blog -- I actually may be contributing to a blog about psych research into reading / writing and this should provide ample inspiration :) By the way -- I didn't want to 'out' the paper on my blog, but if you're curious for the details, you should definitely email Michael. I bet he has the slides for the class. His email is ramscar at stanford dot edu.ReplyDelete
Well science finally made the storyteller/audience relationship into something irrefutable.ReplyDelete
Picking up Zachary's point . . . why is it that you can sometimes figure out an anagrammed word straight away, but sometimes you can look at it for ages without decoding it.ReplyDelete
Doc -- I'm guessing that it has to do with how close the anagram is to the real word (how scrambled it is), and how often you use the word.ReplyDelete
This is incredibly fascinating.ReplyDelete
I'm definitely following this blog!
Interesting research, however there is a difference between hearing somebody speak, and reading a story. Therefore before we claim that reading synchronises the brainwaves of writer and reader, we should actually do some additional experiments.ReplyDelete
Bart -- There will definitely be differences between reading and hearing. For one thing, reading allows you to go at a different speed depending on your reading skill, so you're not really able to talk about synchornizing in the sense here, except maybe synchronizing to the words rather than the clock. You'll also expect more visual/occipitotemporal activation when reading, and less auditory activation. From what I know, there's no reason to think the higher level processes (semantics, emotion, etc) differs in reading and writing. But you're right that we can't make the the claim of synchronization with reading and writing. What I hope writers take from this is not that claim, but some insight into the communicative process and thoughts about how concepts like listener engagement can be applied.ReplyDelete
Interesting. Thank you.ReplyDelete
I love your blog, Livia, and because of that, I've given you an award for strangeness on my blog.ReplyDelete
Very interesting! I don't think it's possible to write a story that will please both types. To engage the passive means to bore the ones who are already engaged. Perhaps something suspenseful, a real page turner, could please both types of readers.ReplyDelete
You are officially smarter than me so I am a new follower.ReplyDelete
I can't do audio books - they take too long.