Stories Synchronize Brains


An ongoing story (so to speak) here at Neuromarketing is the power of stories to engage readers and listeners. Now, there’s new brain scan evidence that shows a startling phenomenon: when one person tells a story and the other actively listens, their brains actually begin to synchronize.

A new study from Princeton University reports that a female student of lead investigator, Uri Hasson, can project her own brain activity onto another person, forcing the person’s neural activity to closely mirror that in her own brain. The process is otherwise known as speech…

The researchers found that when the two people communicate, neural activity over wide regions of their brains becomes almost synchronous, with the listener’s brain activity patterns mirroring those sweeping through the speaker’s brain, albeit with a short lag of about one second. If the listener, however, fails to comprehend what the speaker is trying to communicate, their brain patterns decouple. [From Scientific American – Mind and Brain – Of two minds: Listener brain patterns mirror those of the speaker by R. Douglas Fields.]

The brain scans show that such neural coupling doesn’t always occur – it only happened when the listener was paying attention and understood the story. (It’s entirely possible, of course, that conversations other than stories can also cause similar brain synchronization.)

This work seems most relevant to speakers and in-person salespeople. If one can engage the audience or sales prospects to the point where their brains are mirroring (or even anticipating) one’s own brain activity, they are clearly fully engaged. In this condition, one is far more likely to be successful, whether the objective is to inform or convince. And, pending further research on this “mind meld” phenomenon, we know that at least stories can cause the brains of speakers and listeners to synchronize.

View the whole paper at Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication by Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert and Uri Hasson.

  1. Paul Hassing says

    Absolutely fascinating, Roger.

    Yesterday I wrote a blog post about a beach restaurant experience and a reader commented that ‘I felt I was there’.

    This seems to be borne out by your excellent article. Many thanks for the learning. Best regards, P. 🙂

    1. Roger Dooley says

      While the study didn’t look at written or electronic communication, in Your Brain on Stories I mentioned a study that showed even reading written words could activate the same areas of the brain associated with a visual or physical activity. So, Paul, I think you are correct – a vivid description can indeed light up the brain and convey a “real” experience.


  2. Paul Hassing says

    I guess it’s not too much of a stretch, is it? Can’t wait to see what the next few decades reveal! 🙂

  3. Brendon Clark says

    Thanks Roger. Makes sense when you put it alongside mirror neuron research.

    The salespeople point is interesting, particularly if you wonder whether the whole body language aspect utilises the same systems, along with rapport building, reflecting and the like. Here’s the neural basis of empathy perhaps?

    Paul’s right too, a good writer can transport you, and I wonder if this is the practical component of what’s happening when we say “we’re on the same wavelength”.

  4. Karen Dietz says

    Love the article Roger! Many thanks for sharing. I’ve been looking for research like this to share with my clients.

  5. […] another study from Princeton University researchers discovered that when one person tells a story and the other […]

  6. Julia van de Griendt says

    I’m glad I found your article on LinkedIn! It proves what I recently experienced in a workshop in Dialogue. We were asked to pay attention to the third eye of our partner, both while you where speaking and listening. It was amazing what happened. I felt a connection that was much more intense than usually. Now, when I really want to understand the person I’m listening to, I try to keep my focus there and it works!
    Kind regards, Julia van de Griendt, Moergestel, The Netherlands

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