Literature on the Road

One perk of my semi-nomadic wanderings is that I get to sample the daily lifestyles of the friends and family I visit, including their choice in literature and periodicals. Right now, here in Lake Shastina, California the magazine selection includes two of my favorites: National Geographic and Discover. And while I will go home with a box of older editions, I thought I would share with you the January/February lead story in Discover - The Year in Science: 100 Top Stories of 2010.

To pick my favorite story I had to skip a couple of NASA tales, which I am very fond of, particularly those with photographs from the Hubble. There were also several fossil finds, which made us several tens of millions of years older and set the dinosaurs back nine digits in human years. There were solar planes and green cities; avian optical illusions and rocks in Death Valley that move.

But being the anthropocentric fool that I am, I had to go with a finding from neuroscience about another capacity of the human brain. We know we can measure the neural response in the human brain to nearly any stimuli. So a test was done to first notice the neural activity via fMRI when someone told a vivid memory from their life. Next a group of volunteers were scanned as they listened to a tape of that same memory. 

Two results were discovered. First, the more closely a listener paid attention to the story the more their own brain activity mirrored that of the original story teller. Attention was measured by a follow-up questionnaire. Even more interesting was the discovery that among the most attentive listeners, "key brain regions lit up before the words even came out." Listeners were able to anticipate the coming direction of the story just as the original speaker would foretell their own tale. The short conclusion:

"The more you anticipate someone, the more you're able to enter their space."

For those interested this article is #78 in the top 100, titled: Good Listeners Get Inside Your Head.