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