Lauren Silbert

Lauren Silbert

Princeton Neuroscience Institute

Do we click?
Speaker-listener neural coupling underlies successful communication

Verbal communication enables us to directly convey information across brains, independent of the actual external state of affairs (e.g. telling a story of past events). Such phenomenon may be reflected in the ability of the speaker to directly induce similar brain patterns in another individual, via speech, in the absence of any other stimulation. The recording of the neural responses from both the speaker brain and the listener brain opens a new window into the neural basis of interpersonal communication, and may be used to assess verbal and non-verbal forms of interaction in both human and other model systems. Further understanding of the neural processes that facilitate neural coupling across interlocutors may shed light on the mechanisms by which our brains interact and bind to form societies.

The capacity to communicate internal thoughts from one person to another is at the foundation of human society. Communication naturally requires an interaction between at least two people. Existing neurolinguistic studies are concerned, however, either with speech production or with the comprehension of isolated words or sentences. Little is known, therefore, about the underlying neuronal mechanism that facilitates the transfer of information between two brains during communication.

Understanding the interaction between a speaker’s brain and a listener’s brain in the context of real-world communication requires the development of new experimental paradigms. Using function Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), we measured neural signals from two brains (a speaker and a listener) during a complex everyday communication. We then built a simple, interpretable model that leverages the dynamics of fMRI and uses the speaker’s brain responses as a model for predicting the brain responses within the listener. Our model reveals that during successful communication, the speaker and listener’s brains exhibit joint, temporally coupled, response patterns. Such speaker-listener neural coupling vanishes when participants fail to communicate (such as with different languages). The temporal nature of this speaker-listener coupling suggests that an ability to evoke similar brain patterns in another individual via speech may gate our communication abilities. Moreover, while in most areas the listeners’ brain responses mirror the speaker’s responses with a delay, some areas in the listeners’ brain exhibit predictive anticipatory responses. Finally, we found that the extent of the anticipatory neuronal coupling between interlocutors is predictive of communicative success.

Currently a PhD candidate in Neuroscience from Princeton University, Silbert also has a Bachelors from University of Pennsylvania (Biology and Photography), Masters in Neuroscience from Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, and Masters in Psychology from NYU.