Forming connections during storytelling – the neurological perspective

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Good Connection Really Does Lead to Mind Meld

by Brandon Keim – Science reporter and freelance journalist.

When two people experience a deep connection, they’re informally described as being on the same wavelength. There may be neurological truth to that. Brain scans of a speaker and listener showed their neural activity synchronizing during storytelling. The stronger their reported connection, the closer the coupling.

The experiment was the first to use fMRI, which measures blood flow changes in the brain, on two people as they talked. Different brain regions have been linked to both speaking and listening, but “the ongoing interaction between the two systems during everyday communication remains largely unknown,” wrote Princeton University neuroscientists Greg Stephens and Uri Hasson in the July 2010 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

They found that speaking and listening used common rather than separate neural subsystems inside each brain. Even more striking was an overlap between the brains of speaker and listener. When post-scan interviews found that stories had resonated, scans showed a complex interplay of neural call and response, as if language were a wire between test subjects’ brains.

The findings don’t explain why any two people “click,” as synchronization is a result of that connection, not its cause. And while the brain regions involved are linked to language, their precise functions are not clear. But even if the findings are general, they support what psychologists call the “theory of interactive linguistic alignment” — a fancy way of saying that talking brings people closer by making them share a common conceptual space.

Reference: “Speaker–listener neural coupling underlies successful communication.” By Greg J. Stephens, Lauren J. Silbert, Uri Hasson. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 107 No. 29, July 27, 2010.

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The magic of the pentatonic scale

In this fun, 3-min performance from the World Science Festival, musician Bobby McFerrin uses the pentatonic scale to reveal one surprising result of the way our brains are wired.

Your brain and the size of your social network – which causes which?

Amygdala at the centre of your social network

A larger emotion-processing brain centre is linked to a bigger circle of friends.

Janelle Weave

How many friends do you have? A rough answer can be predicted by the size of a small, almond-shaped brain structure that is present in a wide range of vertebrates, scientists report today in Nature Neuroscience.

The researchers studied the amygdala, which is involved in inter-personal functions such as interpreting emotional facial expressions, reacting to visual threats and trusting strangers. Inter-species comparisons in non-human primates have previously shown that amygdala volume is associated with troop size, suggesting that the brain region supports skills necessary for a complex social life1.

On the basis of these past findings, psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, wondered whether a larger amygdala size allows some humans to build a richer social world.

Barrett’s team measured the amygdala volume in 58 healthy adults using brain images gathered during magnetic resonance imaging sessions. To construct social networks, the researchers asked the volunteers how many people they kept in regular contact with, and how many groups those individuals belonged to.

They found that participants who had bigger and more complex social networks had larger amygdala volumes. This effect did not depend on the age of the volunteers or their own perceived social support or life satisfaction, suggesting that happiness is not the underlying causal factor that links the size of this brain structure in an individual to their number of friends2.

“We’d all predict this relationship should be found, but [the authors] did it in a very smart way by ruling out other variables,” says cognitive neuroscientist Kevin Ochsner of Columbia University in New York City. “That’s why I think this paper is going to end up being a citation classic, because it demonstrates the relationship in a way that gives you confidence that it’s real,” he adds.

Brain teaser

But it’s still a mystery how the amygdala contributes to social networks. Perhaps the structure’s response to faces, emotions or emotional memories influences whether someone decides to develop and maintain relationships, says Brad Dickerson, a cognitive neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, who helped lead the study.

It’s likely that social behaviour relies on a much broader set of brain regions, Dickerson says. In the future, the team will use functional neuroimaging approaches to determine the relationship between patterns of brain activity in an individual and the size of social groups to which they belong.

Another important question is whether a big amygdala is a cause or a consequence of having a large social network. “In the end, it’s probably some of both,” Ochsner says. “But you first had to establish that the relationship really exists before you could address those critical questions.”


What button pushing can tell us about management behaviour

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What button pushing can tell us about management behaviour!

When waiting for lift/elevator most of us will push the call button repeatedly, even though we know it doesn’t do any good to press it more than once.  This tells us a lot about our human response to anxiety.  We keep pushing the button because we are cognitively hard wired to do something when we feel anxiety, not because we have an illusion that it accomplishes anything.

Metaphorical button pushing can be observed when leaders and managers are faced with an anxiety-inducing problem that they can’t do anything about.  But in this context, button pushing takes the form of meetings, planning sessions, the setting up of special teams, team retreats, etc.  These activities tend to give us a sense on control and make us feel better.  But as good as it makes us feel, holding more meetings is almost always the wrong answer, as are most of the other displacement activities in which managers engage, e.g. writing reports, creating PowerPoint presentations, commissioning surveys, pacing around the office making sure that everybody is doing something that at least appears to be productive.  At best, these are harmless button-pushing behaviours.  But more likely they are counterproductive because they take time and attention away from other things and communicate to the organization a sense of anxiety.  When did you last ‘button push’ ?  And what should you have been doing instead?

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An Alternative Illustration of the Consequences of a Butterfly Flapping its Wings

An Alternative Illustration of the Consequences of a Butterfly Flapping its Wings

Source: John Simpson BBC News

The corrupt and brutal regime of President Ceausescu of Romania was infamous across the world. His ferocious government had run the country emphatically for many years, crushing any signs of dissent ruthlessly. In November 1989 he was re-elected President for another five years as his supporters at Party Conference gave him forty standing ovations.

On December 21st the President, disturbed by a small uprising in the western city of Timisoara in support of a Protestant Clergyman, was persuaded to address a public rally in Bucharest.

One solitary man in the crowd, Nica Leon, sick to death with Ceausescu and the dreadful circumstances he created for everyone started shouting in favour of the revolutionaries in Timasoara. The crowd around him, obedient to the last, thought that when he was shouting out ‘long live Timasoara!’ it was some new political slogan.

They started chanting it too. It was only when he called, ‘Down with Ceausescu!’ that they realised something wasn’t right. Terrified, they tried to force themselves away from him, dropping the banners they had been carrying. In the crush the wooden battens on which the banners were held began to snap underfoot and women started screaming. The ensuing panic sounded like booing.

The unthinkable was happening. Ceausescu stood there on his balcony, ludicrously frozen in uncertainty, his mouth opening and shutting. Even the official camera shook with fright. Then the head of security walked swiftly across the balcony towards him and whispered, ‘They’re getting in’. It was clearly audible on the open microphone and was broadcast over the whole country on live national radio.

This was the start of the revolution. Within a week Ceausescu was dead.