This is your brain on … Communication

Thirty-five years ago, the concept of “communication apprehension” was essentially defined as we know it today.

Writing in Human Communication Research journal in 1976, McCroskey, Daly and Sorensen defined the phenomenon as a ‘‘predisposition to avoid communication if possible, or suffer from a variety of anxiety-type feelings when forced to communicate’’ (p. 376). (Click here for the article.)

The following year, in the same journal, McCroskey took it a step further. He defined communication apprehension (or “CA” for short) as: “an individual’s level of fear or anxiety associated with either real or anticipated communication with another person’’ (p. 78).  (Click here for the article.)

In the decades since then, scholarly researchers have endeavored to study this impediment to human communication.

There’s the nature vs. nurture question. Does our society pressure us to be anxious when communicating? Or are we naturally born – i.e. innately hardwired — with such traits? And, either way, can we learn to change and overcome communication apprehension?

There’s been a particular emphasis on teaching techniques that best enable educators to overcome communication apprehension in their classroom environment and successfully reach students who aren’t otherwise as easily teachable due to debilitating communication anxieties.

In a recent discovery, researchers led by one of our professors, Dr. Michael Beatty, further uncovered the role that our brains play in all of this. Beatty and his team provide freshly-illuminating answers to the nature-versus-nurture question.

Writing in Communication Education journal (2011, vol. 60, no. 4), Beatty and his team set out to investigate “the inextricable link between breakthroughs in the understanding of communication apprehension and breakthroughs in treatment approaches” (Beatty, Heisel, Lewis, Pence, Reinhart & Tian, 2011, p. 442). They delve into the parts of the brain that most influence communication anxiety variables such as shyness, verbal aggressiveness or introversion (pp. 446-447) specifically in the anterior cortex (p. 451). (Click here for access to the article.)

While some may think that humans merely learn communication anxiety traits – and thus simply can be treated with enough therapy – Dr. Beatty is a trailblazer in a field of investigative brain research showing that communication anxiety can be traced back to “inborn individual differences in the functioning of neurobiological systems” (p. 443. See also: Beatty, McCroskey & Heisel, 1998, Communication Monographs, 65, 197-219). His studies have isolated the parts of the brain responsible for communication anxiety. For example, when the frontal area of the brain’s cortex demonstrates symmetry and more self-regulating control, less emotional stimuli are exhibited (p. 443) and “anxiety impulses originate in subcortical regions” (p. 445).

In their latest study, published in Communication Education, Beatty and his team tried to isolate the regions of the brain responsible for asymmetry while the brain is at rest. They hooked up 23 undergrad students (p. 450) to an electroencephalograph in a research lab (p. 448) to gather “electrical impulses in the cortex … using a Compumedics/Neuroscan Electrocap system” (p. 448). “Electrodes were aligned along the vortex, naison, and inion,” and the experimenters studied how the subjects “responded to the measure of experimenter-induced anxiety” (p. 451).

They found a “correlation between asymmetry in the anterior region of the prefrontal cortex” and communication apprehension (CA) scores (p. 453). Their findings have “direct implications for the mission of communication educators, especially regarding the development and assessment of programs designed to reduce trait-like CA and for instruction aimed at skills training” (p. 453). For example, remedial strategies attempt to reduce CA. But, the authors note, “our findings point to a neurologically imposed limit to the amount of change that can be accomplished through such therapies” (p. 453).

Furthermore, “our findings suggest that a sizable chunk of the variance in trait-like CA resides in an inborn, stable pattern of electrical functioning in the [anterior cortex] while communicators are at rest” (p. 454). While many educators have been instructed by previous studies – (including some from McCroskey, mentioned at the top of this post for first defining our modern understanding of CA) — that anxiety-reducing techniques can help fix communication apprehension through therapy and “treatment programs” (p. 454), “communication educators would have been better informed about the nature of the problem” if they’d been more fully equipped with “studies documenting the neurobiological barriers” (p. 454).

So, in the debate between nature versus nurture, chalk one more up to nature.

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