Good Listeners Get Inside Your Head

by Amy Barth

What is it like to get inside another person’s head? You already know the answer, according to Princeton neuroscientist Lauren Silbert. She placed herself in an fMRI brain scanner and noted her neural response when she spoke about a vivid memory (two boys fighting over her at her high school prom). Later she and her collaborators scanned the brains of a group of volunteers as they listened to a recording of her story.

The outcome, published last June, was remarkable. Among the listeners who paid close attention to the story—as measured by a subsequent questionnaire—brain activity paralleled the activity in Silbert’s own brain. More surprising, among the most attentive listeners, key brain regions lit up before her words even came out, suggesting anticipation of what she would say next. “The more you anticipate someone, the more you’re able to enter their space,” Silbert says.

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