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:

1 comment:

Lisa Gray said...

Excellent info. Thanks for posting.