Alignment and the neuroscience of effective communication

How can you tell if you really understand what someone else is saying? Or that they really understand what you’re saying? We may have an intuitive sense of being in sync with others, but someday soon there’ll most likely be a mobile app that can check whether our thoughts are actually synchronized…

During his 2016 TED Talk, Uri Hasson presented his research on the ways in which effective communication is reflected in the alignment of neural activity among listeners and between a speaker and listener. This alignment goes beyond our brains’ response to hearing similar sounds, words, and concepts. At a deeper level, it reveals similarities in how our brains process meaning as well as the value of cultivating shared contexts in which to interpret that meaning.

We took the English story and translated it to Russian. Now you have two different sounds and linguistic systems that convey the exact same meaning. And you play the English story to the English listeners and the Russian story to the Russian listeners, and we can compare their responses across the groups. And when we did that, we didn’t see responses that are similar in auditory cortices in language, because the language and sound are very different. However, you can see that the responses in high-order areas were still similar across these two groups. We believe this is because they understood the story in a very similar way … And we think that this alignment is necessary for communication.

This alignment depends not only on our ability to understand the basic concept; it also depends on our ability to develop common ground and understanding and shared belief systems … [O]ne sentence before the story started was enough to make the brain responses of [one group] … different than the other group. And if one sentence is enough to make your brain similar to people that think like you and very different than people that think differently than you, think how this effect is going to be amplified in real life, when we are all listening to the exact same news item after being exposed day after day after day to different media channels … that give us very different perspectives on reality.

This is your brain on communication | TED: Uri Hasson