Jennifer Ouellette, at Scientific American, reminds readers of Uri Hasson's work on "speaker-listener neural coupling," in which he had 11 volunteers listening to a recording of one of his graduate students talking about her disastrous prom night:

The results were a bit surprising: all the listeners showed similar brain activity — i.e., they seemed to respond to the same elements in the story — but they also showed similar brain activity to Silbert (the story teller), despite the fact that speaking and listening are quite different activities.

Not just that, Ouellette notes, but at points, areas of the listener's brain lit up before the relevant bits of the speaker's brain--implying that listening can be so active, neurologically, people are actually anticipating what the speaker is about to say. For Ouellette, the takeaway is that communication is a two-way street: "We tend to think of listening as a passive act, but it actually requires some effort in order to achieve that elusive connection. Particularly when it comes to bridging a gap, as with scientists and the general public, the listeners need to be more actively engaged, more invested in having a true conversation."

It made me wonder what happens when people are listening to comedy; I think humor theorists say that laughter often arises when there's a gulf between what you were expecting and what you actually heard (that's in Aristotle, right?). But it sounds like the story used in Hasson's experiment, about the disastrous prom, was funny. (Tragic, possibly--but if I'm still remembering Aristotle correctly, I think tragedy also involves surprise.)

It sounds like there's a feedback loop, and I'm curious to what extent the anticipation itself plays a role in the process. Perhaps the anticipatory spikes in your brain goose your overall attentiveness? If that's the case, it seems like you'd be more likely to see neurological engagement from your listeners if there's an obvious element of suspense in what you're going to say. You see that intuition at work in, for example, a lot of TED talks--if you go to the "most viewed" list, a lot of talks are touting themselves with something counterintuitive or surprising ("schools kill creativity"? the "power of vulnerability"?)

In any case, here's some comedy that a friend and I watched last night:

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