Cocktail Party Physics

Cocktail Party Physics

Physics With a Twist

Meet Me Halfway


Meet halfway or we ain't gonna make it, baby/

Meet halfway if you want to get it right

-- Bonnie Raitt, "Meet Me Halfway," Fundamental

Who among us has not found ourselves in the awkward and frustrating position of trying to connect with someone conversationally -- and failing, despite our best efforts? It's in stark contrast to the pleasure we derive from a long, lively conversation that flows freely with someone we feel is on the same wavelength. If the latest neuroscience is to be believed, that sense of connection is all in your head -- literally.

I spent a couple days in San Diego last weekend attending the annual conference for the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, taking in a few talks and happily hobnobbing with the social psych crowd (including on-my-wavelength PsySociety blogger Melanie Tannenbaum). On the way home, I stopped in La Jolla to chat with Princeton University cognitive neuroscientist Uri Hasson, who was in town as keynote speaker for a separate workshop.

Hasson's specialty is exploring the dynamics of "interacting brains," performing fMRI scans of human subjects (and the occasional monkey) as they watch movies or listen to a personal story. He made headlines in 2010 with his experiments demonstrating "speaker-listener neural coupling" -- or, as various articles dubbed it, a kind of "mind meld" between speaker and listener that seems to indicate the achievement of true communication.

It's not exactly like the classic Vulcan mind meld featured in the Star Trek franchise, whereby Spock would grope some poor schlub's face and concentrate really hard so he could access their mind and echo their thoughts. There is no face-groping in Hasson's work. But sometimes Spock could achieve a telepathic mini-meld without touching the subject, as in "The Devil in the Dark," when he melds with a lumpy silicon-based alien life form called a horta.

There's no telepathy in Hasson's work, either, but there does appear to be a kind of synchronization, or neural coupling, taking place between speaker and listeners. First he had a graduate student, Lauren Silbert, tell an engaging story about her comically disastrous high school prom (featuring two suitors, a fist fight and a car accident -- Ms. Silbert had quite the prom night!) for fifteen minutes while inside an fMRI machine. Her voice was recorded with a microphone rigged to filter out the machine's CHUNK-CHUNK-CHUNK noise, and the taped story was then played back to 11 "listener" volunteers, also while in the fMRI.

The results were a bit surprising: all the listeners showed similar brain activity -- i.e., they seemed to respond to the same elements in the story -- but they also showed similar brain activity to Silbert (the story teller), despite the fact that speaking and listening are quite different activities.

Hasson thinks this means there might be more overlap than previously believed between the brain's "production and comprehension" systems. It's possible that the brain processes complicated audio input like language through a kind of dual processing mechanism: creating its own version of the signal and then comparing it against what it "heard."

Yes, there was a bit of a time delay between speaker and listener responses -- just enough time to allow for the flow of information between two brains. That, says Hasson, indicates causality: to some extent, the speaker's words shape the responses in the listener's brain. And here's the kicker: there was a subset of brain regions that lit up for some listeners before the corresponding activity in the speaker's brain -- as if those listeners were actively predicting or anticipating the next part of the story.

This might be linked to how well people understand each other. "The stronger the coupling between the speaker and the listener's brain response, the better the understanding," Hasson told a reporter for Princeton's Website last year. "Sometimes when you speak with someone, you get the feeling that you cannot get through to them, and other times you know that you click. When you really understand each other your brains become more similar in responses over time."

So why am I bringing up a research paper that is almost two years old? It dovetails nicely with some thoughts I've been having of late with regard to science communication. A great deal of effort has been made to promote the communication of science and to forge connections between scientists and the general public. Sometimes it works, which is heartening; that's the connection Hasson is talking about that indicates a true link, bona fide communication.

But the vast majority of the populace still cheerfully go about their daily lives without giving science (or scientists) a second thought -- when they're not actively hostile to it. We're simply not reaching them. To borrow a line from Cool Hand Luke: "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."

I don't like it, any more than you. It's frustrating. That frustration is often expressed in a renewed cracking of the whip, insisting that scientists just need to do better in communicating via public outreach. While I agree that the scientific community should (and is) working to improve in that area -- heck, I do this for a living and still am constantly striving to improve! -- what Hasson's research clearly shows is that genuine communication is a two-way street. Scientists -- a.k.a., the speakers -- are only half of the equation, and thus they are only half of the problem.

The other half of the equation are the listeners; any type of communication will fail if it doesn't have a receptive audience. And I'd go one step further. We tend to think of listening as a passive act, but it actually requires some effort in order to achieve that elusive connection. Particularly when it comes to bridging a gap, as with scientists and the general public, the listeners need to be more actively engaged, more invested in having a true conversation.

My conversation with Hasson is a case in point. We had never met before, and had only exchanged the briefest of emails. He's likeable and engaging, but wanted to meet in person rather than chat over the phone because he feared it would be too difficult to get his points across. English is his second language, he's very fluent, but has a heavy accent, and we were discussing technical details that were somewhat new to me. Even though I'm an experienced interviewer, and pretty good at translating technical jargon, there's a lot of potential for crossed signals and lack of comprehension without in-person visual cues. Hasson understands how important making a connection is to good communication.

Even then, things were a bit halting and stilted at first as we struggled to find that common ground. But he actively sought to engage me, and I actively sought to listen and engage with him in turn by asking clarifying questions. We met each other halfway, and our mutual efforts paid off. By the time we parted, we were conversing easily and cracking jokes, and I came away with an enhanced understanding (and appreciation) of his work.

So much of our focus when we talk about science communication is on what the scientific community can do to promote its work and appeal to a broader audience. I'm a fan of broad appeal; there's a place for Mythbusters and Punkin' Chunkin' and the science of science fiction and/or everyday life, to demonstrate that science is fascinating and fun. We desperately need scientists to be blogging and participating in public events. That's important, but it's not sufficient -- not if we want to go beyond superficial interactions to have a substantive, meaningful dialogue. To do that, we need Hasson's mind meld. And that requires receptive, active listeners. Heck, if Spock can connect with a horta, why can't scientists connect with the man/woman on the street?

Which is why I'm speaking directly to the listeners out there now who rarely give science a second thought and/or assume they could never have a meaningful connection with a scientist: you need to meet scientists halfway. It's not enough to sit back and wait for them to impress or entertain you before you'll deign to give science a smidgen of your attention -- not if you want to truly grok what science is all about.

Yes, there is a gaping chasm between the level of knowledge a scientist has, and that of John or Jane Q. Public (or even a humble science writer, for that matter). But it's not insurmountable. It's not that it's too hard, but it does require some effort, an investment, before it starts to reveal its secrets. Science is nuanced; it's got lots of levels, each one more illuminating than the last, and it rewards those who take the time to move beyond the most superficial levels.

For those of you who are leery of science, who think you can't understand it, or assume it's boring -- the scientific community is reaching out across that chasm, waiting for you to meet them halfway. I'm asking you to reach out, in turn. Trust me, as one who spent years resisting the lure of science: You'll be so very glad you did.


The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article