Archive for the ‘Social Communication’ Category

Face-to-Face communication: neurobiology of a vanishing art?

January 15, 2013


Emails, texts, social media—electronic communications are amazingly efficient, but what we gain in speed and efficiency seems to come at a cost.  What do we sacrifice by having more and more communication through our computers and smart phones, and less and less face-to-face communication? Is there something distinctive on a neurobiological level about face-to-face communication relative to other types of communication?  A recent article by Jiang et al (2012) suggests that there is.  The authors point out that face-to-face communication is the most “multi-modal,” i.e. involves integrating the most and richest types of social sensory information, allowing us to hear the tone of voice and see the facial expression and body language of the person we’re communicating with in real time.  Also, face-to-face communication involves a continuous pacing of turn taking in the conversation, which is often lost in electronic communications.  Jiang et al (2012) find that a specific area of the brain—the left inferior frontal cortex, which is an important location of mirror neurons—undergoes synchronized activity in pairs of people specifically during back-and-forth, face-to-face communication, and not in other types of in-person communication (e.g. back-to-back communication or monologues).

More Details

The authors used a method called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS)-based hyperscanning to measure the brain activity simultaneously in sets of two people involved in face-to-face conversations.  For more information on fNIRS, see Irani et al (2007) and Ferrari and Quaresima (2012).  The research participants were young adults in the Beijing, China area–10 same-sex pairs that already were acquainted with each other–that had conversations during scanning.  Each pair engaged in 5 different tasks while their brains were scanned:  resting state (eyes closed, relaxed mind, motionless—as baseline condition), face-to-face dialog, face-to-face monologue, back-to-back dialog, and back-to-back monologue.  The dialogs were about current news topics.  Participants were allowed to use spontaneous gestures and facial expressions during dialog.  The study found an increase in neural synchronization (synchronized brain activity levels in each member of the pair) in the left inferior frontal cortex (IFC) specifically during face-to-face dialog, but not in the other conditions.  Thus, the neural synchronization in the left IFC occurred in the pair not only when they could see and hear each other’s social cues, but also when they engaged in turn taking (a dialog rather than a monologue).  The left IFC is a hub of the mirror neuron system.  The authors conclude that face-to-face communication is distinctive, in part, because it activates neural circuits differently from other types of communication.  For more on the subject of neural synchronization during social interactions, and the notion of “brain-to-brain coupling,” including the role of this  phenomenon in social behavior development and language development, see a recent review by Hasson et al (2012).


Ferrari M, Quaresima V (2012) A brief review on the history of human functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) development and fields of application.  Neuroimage 63(2):921-935.

Hasson U, Ghazanfar AA, Galantucci B, Garrod S, Keysers C (2012) Brain-to-brain coupling:  a mechanism for creating and sharing a social world.  Trends Cogn Sci 16(2):114-121.

Irani F, Platek SM, Bunce S, Ruocco AC, Chute D (2007) Functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS):  an emerging neuroimaging technology with important applications for the study of brain disorders.  Clin Neuropsychol 21(1):9-37.

Jiang J, Dai B, Peng D, Zhu C, Liu L, Lu C (2012) Neural synchronization during face-to-face communication.  Journal of Neuroscience 32(45):16064-16069.

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