Brain Activity Matches Like-Minded Speakers—Even Before They Talk Our brain activity is more similar to that of speakers we are listening to when we can predict what they are going to say, according to a team of neuroscientists. Their study, which appears April 30 in the Journal of Neuroscience, provides fresh evidence of the brain’s role in communication. ... Research in Brief
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Research in Brief  |   July 01, 2014
Brain Activity Matches Like-Minded Speakers—Even Before They Talk
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Hearing & Speech Perception / Research in Brief
Research in Brief   |   July 01, 2014
Brain Activity Matches Like-Minded Speakers—Even Before They Talk
The ASHA Leader, July 2014, Vol. 19, online only. doi:10.1044/leader.RIB5.19072014.np
The ASHA Leader, July 2014, Vol. 19, online only. doi:10.1044/leader.RIB5.19072014.np
Our brain activity is more similar to that of speakers we are listening to when we can predict what they are going to say, according to a team of neuroscientists. Their study, which appears April 30 in the Journal of Neuroscience, provides fresh evidence of the brain’s role in communication.
“Our findings show that the brains of both speakers and listeners take language predictability into account, resulting in more similar brain activity patterns between the two,” says lead author Suzanne Dikker, a postdoctoral researcher in New York University’s Department of Psychology and Utrecht University in The Netherlands. “Crucially, this happens even before a sentence is spoken and heard.”
People constantly anticipate events in the world so that they can respond to them quickly and accurately. For example, they can predict words and sounds based on context: When people hear, “Grass is…” they can easily predict “green.” What’s less understood is how this predictability might affect the speaker’s brain, or even the interaction between speakers and listeners.
Researchers collected brain responses from a speaker while she described images she had viewed. These images varied in terms of likely predictability for a specific description. For instance, one image showed a penguin hugging a star (a relatively easy image in which to predict a speaker’s description). However, another image depicted a guitar stirring a bicycle tire submerged in a boiling pot of water—a picture that is much less likely to yield a predictable description: Is it “a guitar cooking a tire,” “a guitar boiling a wheel” or “a guitar stirring a bike”?
Then, another group of participants listened to those descriptions while viewing the same images. During this period, the researchers monitored the participants’ brain activity.
When comparing the speaker’s brain responses directly to the listeners’ brain responses, the researchers found that activity patterns in brain areas where spoken words are processed were more similar between the listeners and the speaker when the listeners could predict what the speaker was going to say.
When listeners can predict a speaker’s words, the authors suggest, their brains send a signal to their auditory cortex that it can expect sound patterns corresponding to predicted words (for example, “green” while hearing “grass is...”). The speaker’s brain shows a similar effect as she plans what she will say: Brain activity in her auditory language areas is affected by how predictable her utterance will be for her listeners.
“In addition to facilitating rapid and accurate processing of the world around us, the predictive power of our brains might play an important role in human communication,” Dikker notes. “During conversation, we adapt our speech rate and word choices to each other—for example, when explaining science to a child as opposed to a fellow scientist—and these processes are governed by our brains, which correspondingly align to each other.”
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July 2014
Volume 19, Issue 7