communication and brain scienceMost of the commonsense ways we think about how people communicate are wrong, and the reality is much stranger and more wonderful than we can even imagine.  A series of recent breakthroughs in science have overturned the accepted wisdom about how we express ourselves to others, how we interpret what they say to us, and how we decide whether or not to follow another’s leadership.  These studies not only allow us to understand communication in a new way, they also reveal methods to becoming much more persuasive and successful without changing a single word we say.

For example, many of us assume that we make conscious, rational decisions about which leaders we should follow. We recognize that we might be swayed by a person with great charisma, who speaks well and can persuade us through the power of words to follow him or her.  But we imagine that these moments of suasion are a kind of temporary madness.  Deep down we assume we are in control. Yet, recent science overturns all this wishful thinking. Rather than rationally following people who earn our respect and advise us carefully, human beings are programmed by millions of years of evolution to respond to hidden cues that determine whose leadership they follow.

And words have virtually nothing to do with it.

  • You gesture before you think consciously about what you’re doing
  • You have neurons that fire when you witness someone else experiencing an emotion – and they give you the exact same emotion
  • You emit low-frequency sounds that align with the most powerful person near you through matching vocal tones
  • Your measurable nonverbal signals concerning your confidence in a negotiation predict success or failure far more accurately than the relative merits of your position
  • When you communicate with someone else, the two of you align your brain patterns – even if you don’t agree with the other person

Each of these findings is surprising, and some truly defy commonsense.  But taken together they add up to a very different view of how people actually communicate – and what you should do about this new view of communications in order to connect with other people powerfully and persuasively.

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  1. Dear Nick,

    I assume you are talking about the Benjamin Libet experiments in your first example and allude to the mirror neuron hypothesis with the second (for which numerous sources exist). I am less sure what sort of scientific contribution you specifically had in mind when you phrased the subsequent phenomena, as I find them a bit ambiguous.

    As you may or may not know, I have a cognitive science background and moved into the presentation space. Would you be so kind and include some sort of references when you talk about communication and brain science to indulge my curiosity? I’m always trying to bridge that gap between theory and application, so if you came across something useful for me to dig my teeth into, I’d love to give it a try.


    1. Hi, Jacob —

      Thanks for your patience — I’m back from the road, and here are your footnotes:

      1. As you said, the ucs-cs brain sequence is well established – nice book on the subject is A General Theory of Love (strange title for a book on the brain, but good book) by Lewis, Amini, and Lannon; also Susan Goldin-Meadow, Hearing Gesture, for a deeper treatment of how gesture interacts with thought, especially in teaching children
      2. Mirror neurons, Mirrors in the Brain, Rizzolatti and Sinigaglia
      3. Low frequency sounds, try The Human Voice, Anne Karpf; the work is by Stanford Gregory, Jr. one of the giants in the field of voice research — you really should know about him — see, one among many, “Spectral Analysis of Candidates’ Non-verbal Vocal Communication,” Social Psychology Quarterly, 2002, with colleague Timothy Gallagher
      4. Non-verbal signals, Honest Signals, Alex Pentland, groundbreaking work he’s doing at MIT
      5. Brain alignment, Uri Hasson, at Princeton: Case study on brains and “dyadic social interactions”:

  2. As Jakob requested, references would be most appreciated: not only so I can follow up and learn more detail, but also to lend credibility when I pass fascinating info like this on to others. Thanks!


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