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Study finds that higher rhythmic skill translates into better conversations

Entrainment researcher Camille Wynn (right) onversation with a research participant. Wynn has a microphone and is reading from a script.
Stephanie Borrie
Utah State University
Entrainment researcher Camille Wynn (right) deep in conversation at the Human Interactions lab at Utah State University. Wynn is lead author on the paper published last month in Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research.

Sometimes we walk away from conversations feeling rejuvenated and connected, but other times we come away feeling drained, disconnected, and perhaps even misunderstood. In both cases it can be a mystery as to why the conversation was successful, or… not so much.

Researchers at Utah State University in the Department of Communicative Disorders are studying an aspect of communication called entrainment. Entrainment offers one explanation for why some conversations are full of connection and why others fall short. USU Associate Professor Stephanie Borrie, who directs the Human Interactions lab, defined conversational entrainment.

“This is where people modulate their speaking behaviors to align more closely with their partner. If I'm talking really fast, and my partner talks really slow, I might slow down, they might speed up and we would meet somewhere in the middle. So we become more like one another. And this really creates this flow. If you will, a conversational dance where we're moving in sync with one another,” Borrie said.

PhD student Camille Wynn says that entrainment isn’t limited to the rate of speech. When entrained, conversational partners may coordinate pitch, volume, inflection and facial and body language. She also notes that rhythm is an important part of successful entrainment.

“In order to entrain, a person has to be able to perceive the speech rhythms that their conversational partner is producing, and then they must take those rhythms and integrate them into their own speech. So it would make sense that if someone has good rhythmic abilities, then they would also be good at entraining. And there's, you know, a lot of theoretical backing for this, but it's never actually been tested,” Wynn said.

Wynn and Borrie, along with their colleague Tyson Barrett, conducted an experiment to test whether subjects with higher rhythmic perception abilities entrained more readily and had more successful conversations. They used a measurement called the musical ear test where subjects are asked to identify whether two consecutive beats are the same.

The results of the experiment, published last month in Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, show that individuals who performed better on the musical ear task entrained more with their conversational partner and as a result had more successful conversations.

Borrie says this research has important implications for the populations of patients who have difficulty with rhythm.

“This can be anything from people with Parkinson's disease, people who have had a stroke or brain injury, but also neurodivergent populations, fluency disorders. And it turns out that a lot of these populations with these diverse communication disorders also have rhythm deficits. Whether it's perceiving rhythm, producing rhythm, integrating rhythms,” Borrie said.

The two say that results of this study hint at the possibility of teaching patient’s rhythmic skills, such as music, as an intervention to support better entrainment, and in turn, more connected conversations.

Max is a neuroscientist and science reporter. His research revolves around an underexplored protein receptor, called GPR171, and its possible use as a pharmacological target for pain. He reports on opioids, outer space and Great Salt Lake. He loves Utah and its many stories.