‘It takes a lot more brain real estate to disagree than to agree,’ according to study

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  • When two people engage in conversation, there are many neural systems at play
  • Brain activity differs when people are in agreement compared to when they disagree
  • A recent study shows that more regions in the brain are active when people disagree

Yale University researchers have found a way to delve into the brains of people in order to catch a glimpse of what happens when two people are having a discussion.

Social interactions are often made up of conversations where people either agree or disagree with one another, based on what is being communicated, and the researchers wanted to investigate the neural correlates of face-to-face conversations between two people.

“Although the neural systems that underlie spoken language are well-known, how they adapt to evolving social cues during natural conversations remains an unanswered question,” the researchers explain.

Harmonious brain activity 

For the purpose of this study, the researchers recruited 38 adults and presented them with a series of statements, such as "same-sex marriage is a civil right" and "marijuana should be legalised", and asked them whether they agree or disagree with these statements.

Based on their answers, the participants were divided into 19 pairs who then each were faced with the task of engaging in conversation with one another while the researchers monitored their brain activity using brain imaging technology.

Findings of the study show that when two people were in agreement with one another, brain activity was harmonious and was "characterised by increased activity in a social and attention network".

Contrarily, when participants disagreed, these parts of the brain were less active, and many more other regions in the brain were deployed in order to counter their conversational partner's argument. 

Senior author, Professor Joy Hirsch explains: "There is a synchronicity between the brains when we agree. But when we disagree, the neural coupling disconnects."

Hirsch went on to say that when in agreement, there is more of a social interaction between the brains of the speakers and less cognitive engagement.

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