Date of Award

2022

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Communication

First Advisor

Emily Falk

Abstract

Communicating our experiences to others relies on complex shared social, cultural, and psychological mechanisms. Research increasingly shows that shared neural mechanisms also play a role in the success of interpersonal communication. Synchronous activity in shared or complementary regions of the brain promotes emotional connections, cooperation, and memory between communicators. Regions of the brain involved in social and self-relevant information processes – (1) mentalizing, or thinking about the thoughts of others, and (2) self-relevance, or prospecting about the importance of information to the self – show synchrony in ways that correlate with communication outcomes. Synchrony can occur between two individuals, like speakers and their listeners, but it can also occur among a group of listeners, the audience. We use a form of neuroimaging called functional near-infrared spectroscopy to study neural activity as people tell and hear stories. First, we measure synchrony between storytellers and listeners. Chapter 2 shows that synchrony in mentalizing brain regions between a storyteller and her listeners predicts effective communication of emotional states. Next, we consider how synchrony across larger groups of audience members relates to successful communication. Chapter 3 demonstrates that an individual listener's similarity to the average brain response in other audience members, in self-relevance processing regions, predicts the listener's ability to authentically re-tell a story. Finally, extending this work, we also examine whether shared preferences predict neural synchrony in audience members. Chapter 4 integrates information about audience members’ individual preferences for content with audience-level neural synchrony. Within audiences of sports fans and theater lovers, self-reported content preferences predict behavioral liking for entertainment, but neural synchrony does not predict similar preferences in this case. Together these studies explore how synchrony between individuals predicts understanding and ability to transmit stories.

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