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How Two Brains Synchronize in Conversation

The psychology of neural coupling can help improve clarity and communication.

Key points

  • Through the deeper psychology of human communication, we gain a general framework for how to optimize it.
  • At the heart of this is neural coupling—the shared pattern of brain activity between speaker and listener.
  • In business, neural coupling means understanding an audience's unique style, linguistic preferences, etc.
Photo by Priscilla via UnSplash
Communication is ultimately about converging brain states
Source: Photo by Priscilla via UnSplash

Imagine you’ve just had the best French toast of your life. It was so delicious, so perfect, that you want your best friend to be able to understand just how wonderful it was.

The trouble is, they weren’t with you to experience this extraordinary meal, and you didn’t have your phone on you to take a picture, either. So it's up to you: You must communicate from scratch just how amazing it was.

This is a familiar scenario for humans. We have to communicate if we want to share our experiences. How can you ensure that the message you want to project is interpreted in the way that it was intended? How do you recreate a scene, as you experienced it yourself, in the mind's eye of another person?

This is easier said than done, especially when these messages aren't relayed in person but are mediated through text, email, or social media.

However, by examining the underlying science of communication, we can better understand how to approach these tasks. This has rich implications for businesses, which have the additional challenge of scaling their communication to broad, heterogeneous audiences. By examining what enables human communication to be effective, organizations of all sizes can take steps to ensure that their message is articulated clearly, effectively, and emphatically.

The first step is understanding the psychology of language and communication. At the level of the brain, what enables effective human communication? This ultimately comes down to a phenomenon known as neural coupling.

How Brains Synchronize: Neural Coupling

The psychology of language and communication is complex. Scholars have argued for years whether language is contained in a single place in the brain or whether it's more of an emergent phenomenon requiring synchronized activity across multiple regions.

Specific parts of the brain, such as Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, seem to be highly specialized for language. Damage to these regions in adults leads to specific deficits in language ability, known as aphasia. All in all, however, modern neuroscience suggests that there’s no one “language module.” In most speakers, language reliably engages broad swaths of the left hemisphere, especially in the left temporal lobe.

Thankfully, knowledge of specific neuroanatomy isn’t necessary here. It’s not about which specialized regions need to be activated and in what way. In fact, it’s not about what happens in the brain of a single person at all. Instead, the most important insight comes from the very general pattern of brain activity across the two people communicating.

This is the phenomenon of neural coupling.

Neural coupling is the literal synchrony in brain states between speaker and listener. When you’re the speaker, your goal is to replicate the same pattern of brain activity that you have in your head inside the head of your conversational partner.

For any given idea, there’s a unique constellation of neural activity which represents this. This can be anything, such as a memory from your childhood, a concept, or a recent experience you’ve just had. It could even be, for example, your memory from that delicious French toast breakfast. There’s a unique constellation of activity in your brain that represents this.

Source: Hali Marten / Unsplash
Neural Coupling provides a foundational framework for effective 1:1 communication.
Source: Hali Marten / Unsplash

Your job as the speaker, then, is to inculcate that same pattern of activity into the brain of the listener. Literally. The more that their brain comes to have the same pattern of activity as your brain, the better they’ve come to understand your message. Neural synchrony is about sharing your internal state in a way that makes it their internal state. The better you are at replicating that same pattern of brain activity in their head, the better the communication.

This neural coupling is crucial. Research using neuroimaging tools, such as fMRI, finds that the degree of neural synchrony between a conversation partner predicts how well they comprehend one another’s messages. We’re all prone to the occasional miscommunication, but the greater the synchrony, the more we’re understood.

Similarly, other research finds that the neural synchrony between a teacher and their students predicts learning outcomes, suggesting that it’s also crucial for memory as well. And impressively, neural coupling between parent and child during playtime even predicts outcomes in child development and learning. Wherever we look in human psychology, neural synchrony helps make our messages clearer, more meaningful, and more memorable.

So, how can businesses apply neural coupling?

Photo by Christina via UnSplash
Neural coupling in a business setting means being perceptive of another's unique approach to language
Source: Photo by Christina via UnSplash

From Human Communication to Business Communication

Optimizing for neural coupling means anticipating how your message will be perceived and ultimately interpreted. People use language in all kinds of ways—different types of vocabulary, different slang, different metaphors, etc. This makes daily conversations interesting, but it also presents a challenge to clear communication. Successful communicators understand their audience and craft their messaging appropriately.

Your biggest hurdle as a business is the size of your audience. Instead of 1-to-1 communication—as with human dialogue—in brand communication, it's 1-to-many. The good news is that the fundamentals don’t change.

Of course, humans are prone to the occasional misunderstanding. But human communication is very literally the best and most robust kind of communication there is. So, despite our imperfections, brands can borrow from the science that enables this. At the end of the day, it's about neural coupling.

Neural synchrony is a crucial and under-appreciated aspect of marketing psychology.

The recognition of the unique linguistic tendencies and preferences of your specific audience. Think about marketing, for example. This infuses the classic marketing adage of “know your consumer” with a linguistic layer. Think about how your consumers communicate. Do they say, I’ll be right back, or BRB? Are they fans of emojis? Do they use pop culture references? And if so, what kind? By answering these questions you’ll be able to replicate better the same pattern of brain activity that you have in your head into the minds of your audience.

Going Beyond Marketing Communication

In marketing, better communication opens up a range of untapped opportunities. These linguistic insights help illuminate how the audience communicates amongst themselves, which, in turn, helps you capture the audience. They can also be combined with an interactive alignment approach, so enabling the degree of synchrony will only compound over time.

While the psychology of language and communication may be complex, applying it to marketing doesn’t have to be. This comes down to adopting a neuroscience-inspired framework for communication and fleshing it out with the linguistic insights of your audience.

In the end, it’ll be as easy as whipping up some French toast.

This post also appears on the consumer psychology blog NeuroscienceOf.


Bevilacqua, D., Davidesco, I., Wan, L., Chaloner, K., Rowland, J., Ding, M., ... & Dikker, S. (2019). Brain-to-brain synchrony and learning outcomes vary by student–teacher dynamics: Evidence from a real-world classroom electroencephalography study. Journal of cognitive neuroscience, 31(3), 401-411.

Dikker, S., Wan, L., Davidesco, I., Kaggen, L., Oostrik, M., McClintock, J., ... & Poeppel, D. (2017). Brain-to-brain synchrony tracks real-world dynamic group interactions in the classroom. Current biology, 27(9), 1375-1380.

Hasson, U., & Frith, C. D. (2016). Mirroring and beyond: coupled dynamics as a generalized framework for modelling social interactions. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 371(1693), 20150366.

Nam, C. S., Choo, S., Huang, J., & Park, J. (2020). Brain-to-brain neural synchrony during social interactions: a systematic review on hyperscanning studies. Applied Sciences, 10(19), 6669.

Nguyen, M., Vanderwal, T., & Hasson, U. (2019). Shared understanding of narratives is correlated with shared neural responses. NeuroImage, 184, 161-170.

Piazza, E. A., Cohen, A., Trach, J., & Lew-Williams, C. (2021). Neural synchrony predicts children's learning of novel words. Cognition, 214, 104752.

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