Not only does telling a story change our brain’s functioning in some remarkable ways, but it also appears that when we tell stories, we’re changing the brain functioning of those who are listening. Uri Hasson at Princeton studied this phenomenon by using fMRI scanners to track brain activity while people were telling and listening to others’ real-life stories. Like in many studies of this kind, they started by getting a baseline of those participating before the experiment commenced. The cortical activity of each of the subjects was distinctive, dissimilar from each of the other subjects. Then, they started playing a recording of a story told by an actor. As Hasson describes it, “the neural responses in all of the subjects begin to lock together and go up and down in a similar way. Our results indicate that during successful communication, the speaker’s and listener’s brains exhibit joint, temporally coupled, response patterns.”i
The notion that we are somehow genetically engineered to engage with others is not new, though. Researchers have been studying for many years a phenomenon called ‘limbic resonance’ii in which the limbic system of a parent and child synchronize through nonverbal cues. As a mother holds her baby, with their faces approximately 18” apart, something remarkable occurs. While they stare into each other’s eyes, both of their limbic systems achieve resonance. This is important because the limbic system is responsible for a host of internal functions, from how we feel, to how we relate to others, and for our self-regulation. Both eye contact and loving touch contribute to this phenomenon, and we now know that this intimate interaction plays a significant role in the child’s brain development. If you deprive children of this contact, they develop ‘attachment disorder.’ The lack of connection profoundly affects their levels of noradrenaline, cortisol, and serotonin, resulting in a host of psychological problems later in life, including depression, a high risk for substance and alcohol abuse, a lack of impulse control, and aggressive behavior.
As we grow older and begin listening to our parents and other adults tell stories, could the intimacy of the relationship between the teller and the listener also produce a form of limbic resonance? The implications are enormous for how we communicate and build connectivity between people who hold different viewpoints. It would seem that the more we can create a space where people can hear each other’s stories, the more likely they will experience neural synchronization as well as limbic resonance. I believe that this will increase their capacity to connect and understand each other.