Teacher-student neural coupling during teaching and learning


Human communication is remarkably versatile, enabling teachers to share highly abstracted and novel information with their students. What neural processes enable such transfer of information across brains during naturalistic teaching and learning? Here, we show that during lectures, wherein information transmission is unidirectional and flows from the teacher to the student, the student’s brain mirrors the teacher’s brain and that this neural coupling is correlated with learning outcomes. A teacher was scanned in fMRI giving an oral lecture with slides on a scientific topic followed by a review lecture. Students were then scanned watching either the intact lecture and review (textitN = 20) or a temporally scrambled version of the lecture (textitN = 20). Using intersubject correlation (ISC), we observed widespread teacher-student neural coupling spanning sensory cortex and language regions along the superior temporal sulcus as well as higher-level regions including posterior medial cortex (PMC), superior parietal lobule (SPL), and dorsolateral and dorsomedial prefrontal cortex. Teacher-student alignment in higher-level areas was not observed when learning was disrupted by temporally scrambling the lecture. Moreover, teacher-student coupling in PMC was significantly correlated with learning outcomes: the more closely the student’s brain mirrored the teacher’s brain, the more the student improved between behavioral pre-learning and post-learning assessments. Together, these results suggest that the alignment of neural responses between teacher and students may underlie effective communication of complex information across brains in classroom settings.textless/ptextgreatertextlessh3textgreaterSignificance statementtextless/h3textgreater textlessptextgreaterHow is technical, non-narrative information communicated from one brain to another during teaching and learning? In this fMRI study, we show that the DMN activity of teachers and students are coupled during naturalistic teaching. This teacher-student neural coupling emerges only during intact learning and is correlated with learning outcomes. Together, these findings suggest that teacher-student neural alignment underlies effective communication during teaching.