Mind Meld: Stories Connect Brains
March 14, 2012 2 Comments
Like many children growing up in the 60’s and 70’s, I sat glued to the TV every week for reruns of my favorite show, Star Trek. Captain Kirk was dashing, but my geeky, 10 year-old heart belonged to Mr. Spock, the logical half-human, half-Vulcan science officer. Mr. Spock had a particular talent, the mind-meld, that fascinated me. Usually through physical contact, Mr. Spock would share thoughts, experiences and feelings with another being. This power to connect with another mind was incredible, and as it turns out, not so far-fetched.
A 2010 study suggests that there is a brain connection between storyteller and listener.
Here’s an excerpt from her story, right after her family is returning home from a scuba diving trip that went awry on the day of prom:
“. . .we’re pulling into my house at like 6 o’clock, like two and a half hours late, just as Charles, who’s always on time, of course is pulling up. We pull up together. And, I don’t know if you’ve ever been scuba diving, but pretty much the worst you’ll ever look is after you go scuba diving. You’ve been under 60 feet of water, which is two atmospheres of pressure, for an hour and a half. You have a goggle mark permanently sketched into your face, which takes like 5 hours to get rid of that. And um, just your hair, it’s just a mess, you’re just a mess. And now I have approximately 5 minutes to get ready for the prom. So I’m like trying to put on make-up while my sister is shaving my legs, while my mom is brushing my hair.”
I rather wish I could have been one of the 11 listeners who had their brain activity recorded while listening to an audio recording of that story! The researchers found that most of the time the listeners’ brain activity mirrored the speaker’s brain activity with a slight delay of 1-3 seconds, which suggests that a listener’s comprehension slightly lags a speaker’s formulation of the story.
Application: Story does connect with listeners; however there may be a slight delay between the conceptualization of the story in the speaker’s mind and the conceptualization of the story in the listener’s mind. Too many details at once, especially if delivered too quickly (or on a bullet-packed PowerPoint) may confuse a listener. There can be power in the pause.
The researchers also found a subset of brain regions in which the activity in the listener’s brain preceded the activity in the speaker’s brain. The listener anticipated what the speaker was going to say. This anticipatory brain activity, which is facilitated by the speaker using highly predictable words, may allow the listener more time to process the input for greater comprehension. The extent of the listener’s anticipatory brain activity “was highly correlated with the level of understanding, indicating that successful communication requires the active engagement of the listener.”
Application: Listeners anticipate what might happen next, if the story is one they understand or relate to. Key words and structures that are predictable can enhance understanding and engagement. This does not mean that the story has to be entirely predictable. People, with years of conditioning for story structure, expect that there will be conflict and change of circumstance followed by some kind of resolution.
The coupled speaker/listener brain activity resembles the action/perception coupling observed with mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons, first described in 1992 by researchers studying monkeys in Parma, Italy, are neurons that respond both when an individual performs an action and when the individual observes another performing a similar action. Mirror neurons transform observed information into knowledge. Mirror neuron research has far-reaching implications including applications in learning by imitation, predicting actions, and in empathy. Mirror neurons are probably activated during storytelling, although direct proof remains elusive.
Applications: Story can engage a listener by causing an empathetic response. This response is evoked by the speaker helping the listener create a vivid mental image (often with a strong emotional component in which the listener can imagine himself in a similar situation). Thus, story can also be a form of mental rehearsal, a flight simulator for the mind. Stories can be an efficient way to share knowledge.
Stories connect. Stories engage. Stories help transfer knowledge. I guess we don’t need mind melds after all.