Julia Uddén porträttbild
Julia Uddén.

Julia Uddén has used the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scanning apparatus to find out what in the brain is different in people who have a difficulty to communicate with others, or on the contrary find it easy to communicate.

“I have previously used some of the most advanced equipment in the world, some of which can be found in the Netherlands, and the fMRI at SUBIC is very similar to that. It worked surprisingly well at SUBIC, comments Julia Uddén.

When the participants were lying in the brain scanner, they had to listen to a sentence that was said with various intonations. At the same time, the meaning of the sentence was changed depending upon what happened prior to the dialogue. The Research Group then examined whether the participants perceived the differences in meaning and what then happened in the brain. The result was that strong and weak communicators react in different ways in the brain, when they process implicit messages, i.e. context-imbedded communication.

The research establishes new knowledge about how we do what we do when we understand what is being said in a conversation and how this functions in the brain. This can also be an important basis for understanding the communication problems found in many neurological and psychiatric disorders such as ADHD, schizophrenia and autism. But even for fully healthy individuals, it is a simple fact that some people are better at communicating than others. Among other things, strong communicators take into account what words they use depending upon whom they are talking to. They also have the capability to understand the underlying meaning based on which words are being emphasised in the sentence.

Julia Uddén already has plans to use fMRI again in her next research project, where she and her colleagues will explore how young people develop the ability to interpret the underlying meaning in a conversation.

Two interconnected EEG systems

Mattias Heldner (with head phones) and his research colleagues using the EEG equipment at SUBIC.
Mattias Heldner (with head phones) and his research colleagues using the EEG equipment at SUBIC. Photo: Jens Olof Lasthein.

Mattias Heldner and his research team needed two EEG systems, so they brought their own from the phonetics lab and paired it with SUBIC’s. In that way, they were able to collect brain activity from two people at the same time.

“We think we are the first to make an EEG recording of two people having a spontaneous conversation. We don’t yet know if it will yield anything of value, but the prospect that it might is something that is very exciting.”

Most people have discussions with others every day and are good at holding conversations. But what it is that makes it work so well, academic researchers really don’t yet know.

“We suspect that there are things occurring when two people talk to each other, things that cannot be understood by simply only seeing and listening to the conversation. One example might be that someone intended to say something but then didn’t. One way to see this could be by studying brain activity and what it usually looks like before one starts talking or intends to start talking. Another is how we breathe. We believe that breathing is important for how we regulate conversations, for example, a quick inhalation can be a sign of thinking.”

The researchers combined EEG recordings with audio and microphone recordings in order to more clearly see when the subjects were talking and when they were silent. They also used breathing tapes to measure when people were breathing in or breathing out.

“In the long run, this research could help make conversations between man and machine more like conversations between man and man. The more we understand how human conversation works, the greater chance we have of recreating it with machines. One example might be that an autonomous social robot perceives that the person it is talking to is taking a quick inhalation and then understands that the person is about to say something.”

Mattias Heldner and his research colleagues were the first to use the EEG equipment at SUBIC; it was so new that they had to unpack it themselves and install it before they could use it.

“We had access to a studio and a large control room. These are excellent premises that are well adapted to the research we conduct,” Mattias Heldner informs us.

If the research team obtains good results from the first collection of data, they will continue and then they would very much like to use SUBIC again.

Important fact about SUBIC
The Centre is available to all academic researchers and research scientists an affiliation to Stockholm University, or with an affiliation to another Swedish university or their international partners. Read more about which equipment is available on su.se/subic