Monday, March 26, 2012

Research update: When the speaker is boring, listeners’ brains will fill in the “blanks”; The implications for the courtroom explained.

The world is not made of atoms, it is made of stories. Muriel Rukeyser

For those of us in the communication business, we know first-hand the power of stories.  Nothing can match the story for engaging the audience, and conveying a compelling, emotionally powerful message like a good story. Good stories always contain vivid detail, and they almost always contain dialogue.  Now some new brain research using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) scanning has provided some new insights into the power of stories.

Scientists at the University of Glasgow’s Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology scanned the brains of study participants as they listened to audio clips of stories: one group of very short stories was read in a monotone and was “boring”, the other was read with more inflection and was “vivid”. While listening to the “boring” stories, the level of brain activity INCREASED in areas of the auditory cortex interested in human speech, and the participants reported that activity was the brain’s “internal dialogue” filling in the missing information in the boring story.  This was particularly evident in stories with no “direct speech quotations” which the researchers interpreted as the brain “talking over” the boring speech with its own internal speech to speed up information processing and to prepare a response.

Direct speech is more engaging because it triggers neural links to facial expressions, other voices, and gestures and therefore conveys more information. It is this same process that makes reading novels so powerful, as the brain supplies cortical activation in a network of brain centers to “fill in” a complete sensory-motor “picture” depicted in the words on the page.  This is the inherent power of a story: it engages the whole brain in creating an internal representation of the message, and keeps the brain engaged in processing that message.

As any seasoned observer knows, the audience in the courtroom, be it judge or jury, frequently faces the challenge of listening to “boring” speakers. It has long been known that when the audience is bored, they “tune out”, but this research highlights the real danger of “boring” courtroom argument or testimony: the audience not only tunes out, they actually SUBSTITUTE their own more interesting internally generated story to “make up” for the boring audio they are actually hearing!! This may help to explain why fact finders report hearing “evidence” that was not presented when they explain decisions which seem so disconnected from the testimony and the issues. Boring is not just a nuisance in court; it’s a danger! Bored brains are not your friends.

The bottom line: The brains of any audience can be both your friend and your enemy. When the message is a story that includes dialogue and is engaging, those brains will be your friend as they are completely involved in processing the information in multiple sensory and motor channels that are activated by a good story. 

On the other hand, when the message is boring, that is, monotonic, monotonous, and lacking in direct speech and dialogue, those bored brains will be busy “filling in” the processing time with a much more interesting but internally generated story which will probably be loosely connected to the message, at best.

Here’s the link to the research report:

Monday, March 12, 2012

Narcissism Research Update: new fMRI research can distinguish narcissism from normal

Narcissism is over-represented among people involved in divorces, and in my experience with hundreds of litigated divorce cases, narcissists are involved in a high percentage of litigated divorces. New research has further refined both the public persona and the unique brain characteristics of narcissistic people (NPD).

First, the public persona. Researchers compared narcissists identified by their personality test scores and compared their Facebook pages with more normal people. The results were just what one would expect. Narcissistic people had a greater number of "friends' than those who were not, a confirmation of the NPD tendency to have more but shallower relationships. Their profile photos tended to be more stylized and "glamour shot"-like than less narcissistic people. Finally, their posts tended to be more self-promoting. For more information look here:

This research is consistent with some other research which compared annual company reports  and other company PR of narcissistic CEOs with those of companies run by normal people. As expected, the text of reports of narcissistic CEOs had more references to "I" and fewer to "we", had larger photos of the CEO on covers and press releases, and were generally more self-promoting than company promoting. There are a notable gap in salary between the CEO and the second in command in these companies as well, unlike companies without narcissistic CEOs.

Both of these findings provide tools for divorce attorneys to do some free discovery on clients or spouses in these public records and get a "heads up" about the personality functioning of these people without a mental health professional evaluation or records (most narcissists NEVER see a shrink, so records are rare).

Now for the look inside the brain of a narcissist. Research investigating the function of the medial prefrontal cortex (MPC) in maintaining self-perception compared normal and narcissistic people on their ability to identify faces after a brief shock. The shock had scrambled the MPC for a fraction of a second and the participants were shown pictures of themselves, friends, and known strangers during the interval when their MPCs were scrambled. Normal people could identify friends and strangers but NOT themselves, confirming the function of the MPC in self recognition. However, even when the MPC was "off-line", narcissists could still identify their own photos. The researchers concluded that narcissists have larger portions of their brains devoted to "ME" (wonderful, glorious, fabulous me, I might add) than do normal people. This research may be another step toward developing an reliable imaging (fMRI) diagnostic tool for identifying NPD. It may also identify the neural underpinnings of this very destructive personality disorder.

For more information about this research and other fMRI research on narcissism, look here:

NPD is an aggravating factor in a large percentage of very malignant divorces, so better diagnosis, especially of the non-psychological test variety, will be increasingly helpful in future child custody evaluations.