Lauren Silbert, a Princeton neuroscientist, is delivering a talk on “neural coupling” in communication. (Bio, slides, on-the-fly transcript.) She seems nervous, but this gives the talk a human feel that makes it a bit more accessible than the last couple talks, which were hurried in a rather mechanical way. (No hidden agenda here, but really.)

She’s presenting on research that shows that neural patterns in listeners mirror those in speakers. Thus, she argues, it seems that a key to communication is the act of transmitting internal brain states — or, at least, evoking in a listener the same brain state as a speaker.
This all seems pretty sound to me — it’s an idea has been very well fleshed out in linguistic theory at least since the semiotics of the mid-twentieth century. This more recent research seems just to provide a neural basis and confirmation for a phenomenon that we’ve already come to understand well through philosophy.
It’s only implicit in this talk, but it strikes me again how often neurological and psychological research is presented with the headline “we now know that…” when the conclusion is something that’s already been known through the humanities or common sense for a very long time.


  1. you maybe missed due to the 10 minute cramming, that the unexpected and novel part of this finding was that effective communication was most correlated to the effect where the listener's brain PRECEDED the speaker's brain… as if the listener must be accurately anticipating the mental state of the speaker in order to understand them. This isn't obvious from philosophy, even if it maybe makes sense that it could work this way. Clearly many kinds of digital communication don't work this way.

  2. Thanks for pointing that out, revezvert. I did miss that. I'd be willing to bet that notion has been explored philosophically before, but it's certainly a more significant (and interesting) finding than I indicated.

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