## Abstract

Social scientists have documented the power of being heard: Disclosing emotional experiences to others promotes mental and physical health. Yet, far less is known about how listeners digest the sensitive information people share with them. We combined brain imaging and text analysis methods with a naturalistic emotional disclosure paradigm to assess how listeners form memories of others' disclosures. Neural and linguistic evidence support the hypothesis that listeners consolidate memories for others' disclosures during rest after listening and that their ability to do so facilitates subsequently providing the speakers with support. In Study 1, brain imaging methods showed that functional connectivity between the dorsomedial subsystem of the default network and frontoparietal control network increased during rest after listening to others' disclosures and predicted subsequent memory for their experiences. Moreover, graph analytic methods demonstrated that the left anterior temporal lobe may function as a connector hub between these two networks when consolidating memory for disclosures. In Study 2, linguistic analyses revealed other-focused thought increased during rest after listening to others' disclosures and predicted not only memory for the information disclosed but also whether listeners supported the speakers the next day. Collectively, these findings point to the important role of memory consolidation during rest in helping listeners respond supportively to others' disclosures. In our increasingly busy lives, pausing to briefly rest may not only help us care for ourselves but also help us care for others.

## INTRODUCTION

Think about the first person you talk to in trying times. What makes this person good at responding to your difficult emotions? There are likely a number of reasons, but chances are that when you disclose your struggles, they form a clear memory of your experiences. They may even refer back to your experiences when they check in with you later. In contrast, if you disclosed your experiences to someone today and they forgot about them by tomorrow, you probably would not seek support from them again.

Remembering other people's disclosures is one of the most crucial—yet underresearched—social skills. Without it, we would have a difficult time maintaining close relationships or responding intelligently to others' struggles. Yet, virtually all studies on memory for other people have focused on how we recognize faces (Mitchell, Macrae, & Banaji, 2004; Clark, Maisog, & Haxby, 1998; Bruce & Young, 1986); learn to associate faces with names, personality traits, and social roles (Meyer, Davachi, Ochsner, & Lieberman, 2019; Wang et al., 2017; Tsukiura, Suzuki, Shigemune, & Mochizuki-Kawai, 2008); or recall our own autobiographical memories of social experiences (Speer & Delgado, 2019; Meyer, Williams, & Eisenberger, 2015; Spreng & Mar, 2012). Although remembering this type of basic social information certainly matters, it only scratches the surface of interpersonal learning and memory. How we consolidate the nuanced information we glean from others' disclosures to us remains largely overlooked. Here, we ask (i) How do ‘listeners’ form memories of ‘disclosers’ (i.e., the individuals sharing their experiences)? and (ii) Does skill in this domain help listeners interact supportively with disclosers?

Two bodies of research, when taken in conjunction, suggest that engaging the brain's default network during rest may help listeners create memories of disclosers' experiences. First, memory research finds that functional connectivity between brain regions during rest periods after encoding (“postencoding rest”) is associated with memory consolidation, or the process by which new information becomes solidified in memory (Murty, Tompary, Adcock, & Davachi, 2017; Tambini, Ketz, & Davachi, 2010; Peigneux et al., 2006). Of particular relevance here, consolidating basic facts about people (i.e., others' faces, traits, and jobs) is associated with postencoding resting state connectivity between default network regions (Meyer, Davachi, et al., 2019). Second, the default network is implicated in listening during communication. For example, listening to others share their personal experiences (Zaki, Weber, Bolger, & Ochsner, 2009) or tell an entertaining story (Baldassano et al., 2017; Zadbood, Chen, Leong, Norman, & Hasson, 2017; Simony et al., 2016) preferentially engages the default network. Given these past findings, we predict that the default network may be associated with consolidating information about disclosers' experiences during rest after listening.

If the default network is associated with consolidating information about disclosers' experiences during postencoding rest, there are multiple ways in which the network may accomplish this feat. The default network can be further divided into three subsystems (Andrews-Hanna, Reidler, Sepulcre, Poulin, & Buckner, 2010): a midline core subsystem associated with self-referential processing (Lieberman, Straccia, Meyer, Du, & Tan, 2019; Denny, Kober, Wager, & Ochsner, 2012; Gusnard, Akbudak, Shulman, & Raichle, 2001), a medial temporal lobe (MTL) subsystem associated with remembering and imagining mental scenes (Schacter & Addis, 2009; Squire & Zola-Morgan, 1991), and a dorsomedial (dorsomedial pFC [dMPFC]) subsystem associated with thinking about other people and social interactions (Wagner, Kelley, Haxby, & Heatherton, 2016; Van Overwalle & Baetens, 2009; Mitchell et al., 2004; Saxe & Kanwisher, 2003). Although each of these subsystems may be important to consolidating different facets of social information, the dorsomedial subsystem—given its sensitivity to thinking about others and social interactions—may be particularly key. Moreover, the dMPFC subsystem might facilitate consolidation on its own (i.e., greater connectivity within regions of the dMPFC subsystem) or by communicating with other brain networks (i.e., greater connectivity between the dMPFC subsystem and other networks). There is a growing appreciation that brain networks do not operate in silos but rather work together with other networks to process information (Ryali et al., 2016; Uddin, Supekar, Ryali, & Menon, 2011; Bressler & Menon, 2010). Interestingly, the default network and frontoparietal control network (FPCN) increase in tandem to sustain social information processing in the absence of social stimuli (e.g., during a working memory delay period; Meyer, Taylor, & Lieberman, 2015; Meyer, Spunt, Berkman, Taylor, & Lieberman, 2012), pointing to the possibility that they may work together to consolidate social information during rest as well. Collectively, a network neuroscience framework suggests that listeners' default network, particularly the dorsomedial subsystem, may partner with other brain systems, particularly the FPCN, to learn about disclosers during rest. Our first goal was to test these possibilities, to determine whether and how listeners may use their default network to consolidate information about disclosers' experiences.

Moving beyond how listeners consolidate information about disclosers' experiences, we next sought to answer why doing so matters for real-world social behavior. A large body of research has shown that disclosures benefit the discloser's own health and well-being (Kelley, Lumley, & Leisen, 1997; Pennebaker, Kiecolt-Glaser, & Glaser, 1988) and that disclosers benefit the most when listeners respond supportively (Gramling et al., 2016; Goldstein, Vezich, & Shapiro, 2014; Lun, Kesebir, & Oishi, 2008). In fact, even listeners' health may be improved by connecting with disclosers (Inagaki & Orehek, 2017; Inagaki & Eisenberger, 2016). Thus, identifying factors that promote supportive responding on the part of listeners is critical. So far, work on this topic largely focuses on how empathy for another person's experiences leads to immediate helping behavior or helping intentions toward that person (Masten, Morelli, & Eisenberger, 2011; Mathur, Harada, Lipke, & Chiao, 2010; Oswald, 1996; Dovidio, Allen, & Schroeder, 1990; Schroeder, Dovidio, Sibicky, Matthews, & Allen, 1988; Coke, Batson, & McDavis, 1978). Yet in real life, supportive behavior often operates on longer timescales, and as noted above, if a friend forgot about your struggles from yesterday, they would not be very helpful today. However, only a single study has considered the potential role of memory in support-giving, finding that remembering one's own past helping behavior increases the intention to help others in the future (Gaesser & Schacter, 2014). It remains unknown whether our memory for other people's experiences (rather than our own) predicts actual subsequent helping (rather than an intention to help). To fill this gap, we tested whether listeners' memory for disclosers' experiences corresponds with subsequently providing disclosers support.

To answer these open questions, we developed a new experimental paradigm that involved listening to others share information, resting, and subsequent memory assessments. Specifically, participants alternated between (i) listening to someone share information about a personal experience (i.e., watching YouTube videos in which patients with cystic fibrosis [CF] share their experience of dealing with their disease), (ii) listening to someone share information that pertained to the same subject matter but devoid of personal experiences with it (i.e., watching videos from the online educational organization Khan Academy, in which teachers describe the science behind the patients' disease), and (iii) resting for several minutes at a time. Next, participants completed a surprise memory test for the information they encoded.

To test whether and how default network connectivity during postencoding rest consolidates emotional disclosures, in Study 1, participants completed the rest and encoding portions of the paradigm while undergoing fMRI and completed the surprise memory test outside the scanner. To test whether memory for the emotional disclosures predicts subsequent support-giving, in Study 2, participants completed our paradigm over the Internet and then, the next day, were recontacted with the option to provide support to disclosers. Participants in Study 2 also provided written descriptions of their thoughts across the rest periods. This allowed us to additionally unpack, through linguistic analyses, the postencoding cognitive processes in listeners during rest that facilitates their memory for disclosers' experiences. Collectively, our multimethod approach provides novel insight into how listeners form memories of disclosers' experiences and how such memory relates to subsequent support-giving.

## STUDY 1

### Methods

#### Participants

##### Day 1.

Upon beginning the experiment, participants completed the same paradigm used in Study 1, with a few differences. To facilitate engagement online, but without changing the overall length of the experiment, rest blocks were slightly shorter (4 min rather than 6 min), and the video blocks were slightly longer (six videos rather than four). Participants completed the experiment in the Inquisit 5 Player application, which ensured that participants could not do other tasks on their computers during the videos or rest periods as it locks users into the Inquisit screen. Compliance during rest periods was further ensured by asking attention check questions every minute plus or minus a random interval; data were discarded for participants who failed more than one attention check (36 participants who are not reflected in our final sample of n = 197). After each rest period, participants were additionally asked to free write about all of the thoughts they had during the previous rest period. At the end of the task, participants completed the same surprise memory test used in Study 1, and their responses were later scored for the number of distinct, correct facts recalled.

##### Day 2.

On the second day of the experiment, participants had the option to write a message of support to any of the patients they had listened to the day prior. To ensure that choosing to write a message was not driven by interest in monetary reward, participants were not paid extra for choosing to write, nor their time spent doing so. To increase participants' perception that their support could be impactful, they were told that their messages would be delivered to the patients they addressed.

Supporters' messages were scored by an independent sample of Mechanical Turk raters (n = 28). Raters answered the following four questions for each message, on a scale of 0–100: (1) “Overall, how supportive does the writer seem?”; (2) “To what extent does the writer express concern for the difficulties the recipient is facing?”; (3) “To what extent does the writer express encouragement (e.g., You can do it)?”; and (4) “To what extent do you think this message would make the recipient feel better?” Similar questions have been used in past work studying support-giving to evaluate the supportiveness of messages (Inagaki & Eisenberger, 2016). As ratings for these four questions were highly related (Cronbach's alpha = .98), we averaged across them to generate a single supportiveness score.

#### Data Analysis

##### Linguistic analysis of rest thought content.

We used the 2015 Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count (Pennebaker, Boyd, Jordan, & Blackburn, 2015) software to assess the amount of other-focused reflection in participants' free writes. For each participant, we summed the percentages from the Linguistic Inquiry and Word Count categories that referenced other people and social interaction more generally. This included all non-first-person singular personal pronouns (e.g., “she,” “him,” “they”), nouns that pertain to people (e.g., “girl,” “neighbor”), and verbs that suggest human interaction (e.g., “talking,” “sharing”). We refer to this score in all subsequent analyses as “other-focus.”

##### Condition comparisons.

To test whether other-focus was uniquely elevated during postpatient rest, we ran a linear mixed-effect model using R's lme4 package (Bates et al., 2015). The model evaluated other-focus as a function of rest block and controlled for multiple within-participant measures by including a random intercept for each participant. Other-focus during postpatient rest was compared to other-focus during all other rest blocks using a sum contrast.

##### Memory performance and providing support.

To evaluate the relationship between individual differences in other-focus during rest and subsequent memory for the videos, we computed the Pearson correlation between other-focus and number of facts recalled. t Tests were used to compare other-focus and memory across participants who wrote at least one supportive message and participants who wrote none. To examine the interactions between all three variables (other-focus, memory, and message writing), we tested for mediation with R's mediation package (Tingley, Yamamoto, Hirose, Keele, & Imai, 2014) using the bias-corrected bootstrap based on 5000 bootstrapped samples. In addition, for the participants who wrote at least one supportive message, we computed the Pearson correlation between the supportiveness of their messages and facts recalled from the patient videos.

Participants' memory performance for the patient (M = 15.1, SD = 9.0) and science (M = 14.8, SD = 11.5) videos were not significantly different from one another, t(196) = 0.57, p = .57, suggesting that the significant difference between memory scores observed in Study 1 is unlikely a robust finding and mitigates concerns that observed differences may be driven by differences in memory difficulty for the two types of encoding. Nonetheless, as in Study 1, these two indices of memory were significantly correlated (r = .71, p < .001), again indicating that they tap into similar, although not fully redundant, aspects of memory.

### Results

#### Thought Content Preferentially Associated with Rest after Listening to Emotional Disclosures

Our first goal in Study 2 was to test whether other-focused thought during rest after listening to disclosures is associated with better subsequent memory for them. If so, our linguistic measure of other-focus should parallel the neural findings from Study 1 (i.e., increase the most during postpatient rest and correlate with the number of patient facts recalled). Indeed, a linear mixed model showed that other-focus was uniquely elevated during postpatient rest, t(392) = 6.28, p < .001, β = 0.26, SE = 0.04 (Figure 6A). Moreover, other-focus during postpatient rest also correlated with the number of facts recalled from the patient videos (r = .20, p = .005).

Figure 6.

Results from Study 2. (A) Other-focused thought content was greatest during postpatient rest, relative to each of the other rest periods. (B) Results from the mediation model demonstrating that memory of patient videos partially explains the relationship between other-focused thoughts during postpatient rest and subsequently choosing to write a supportive message.

Figure 6.

Results from Study 2. (A) Other-focused thought content was greatest during postpatient rest, relative to each of the other rest periods. (B) Results from the mediation model demonstrating that memory of patient videos partially explains the relationship between other-focused thoughts during postpatient rest and subsequently choosing to write a supportive message.

#### The Relationship between Thought Content, Memory, and Supportive Behavior

Our next goal was to assess the relationship between memory for others' emotional disclosures and subsequent supportive behavior. When we compared memory between participants who wrote at least one supportive message (“supporters”) and those who did not (“nonsupporters”), we found that supporters remembered, on average, 3.6 more facts from the patient videos, t(195) = 2.95, p = .004. Intriguingly, supporters also engaged in 1.5 times as much other-focused thought during postpatient rest compared to nonsupporters, t(186) = 4.18, p < .001. This observation led us to test for mediation, and we indeed found that the relationship between other-focus during postpatient rest and supportive behavior was partially mediated by memory of the patient videos (proportion mediated = 11%, 95% CI [2%, 38%], p = .03; Figure 6B, Table 1). Finally, among supporters, greater memory for disclosers' experiences also tracked with the supportiveness of their messages. That is, independent raters' assessments of letter supportiveness significantly correlated with supporters' memory for disclosers' experiences (r = .24, p < .001; Figure 7). Collectively, these results suggest that memory for others' disclosures has a real-world impact on supportive behavior and helps explain the link between the content of our thoughts after listening to disclosers and our decision to subsequently support them.

Table 1.
Test of Mediation with Bootstrapped Results for Other-Focus → Memory of Patient Videos → Decision to Provide Support
β CoefficientBias-corrected 95% CIp Value
LowerUpper
Indirect effect 0.02 0.002 0.04 .03
Direct effect 0.13 0.06 0.21 <.001
Total effect 0.15 0.08 0.22 <.001
Proportion of total effect mediated 0.11 0.02 0.38 .03
β CoefficientBias-corrected 95% CIp Value
LowerUpper
Indirect effect 0.02 0.002 0.04 .03
Direct effect 0.13 0.06 0.21 <.001
Total effect 0.15 0.08 0.22 <.001
Proportion of total effect mediated 0.11 0.02 0.38 .03
Figure 7.

Among participants who wrote messages to the patients, memory of patients' experiences correlated with supportiveness of participants' messages. It is noteworthy that this correlation remains significant if the most extreme data point is removed (r = .22, p = .002).

Figure 7.

Among participants who wrote messages to the patients, memory of patients' experiences correlated with supportiveness of participants' messages. It is noteworthy that this correlation remains significant if the most extreme data point is removed (r = .22, p = .002).

## DISCUSSION

Disclosing difficult experiences is a hallmark of interpersonal relationships. Yet, virtually no research to date has examined how listeners digest this information to effectively learn about disclosers' experiences, nor whether the ability to do so helps listeners provide disclosers with support. Across two studies, we identified mechanisms during postencoding rest that help listeners consolidate information about disclosers' experiences and found that such memory facilitates subsequent supportive behavior. In Study 1, dMPFC-FPCNA between-network connectivity was uniquely elevated during rest after watching videos of patients' disclosures and correlated with memory for patients' experiences. In addition, graph-based network analyses revealed that regions in these two networks, most notably the left ATL, may help bridge these networks to consolidate memory for others' disclosures. In Study 2, memory for patients' disclosures predicted whether and how well participants supported the patients the next day. Moreover, memory for patients' disclosures partially mediated the relationship between other-focused thought during postencoding rest and subsequent social support. Collectively, these findings point to the important role of memory consolidation during rest in support provision.

Results from Study 1 provide new insight into the role of dMPFC-FPCNA connectivity in social learning and memory. Past research has found that both of these networks are associated with maintaining and manipulating high-level social information (e.g., information about people's personality traits) over a very brief delay in working memory (i.e., 6 sec [Meyer, Taylor, & Lieberman, 2015; Meyer et al., 2012]). Here, we found that these networks can sustain communication during longer timescales (i.e., 6 min) directly after exposure to new social information and that doing so predicts subsequent social memory performance. Previous work implicates the dMPFC subsystem in interpreting other people (Dixon et al., 2018; Wagner et al., 2016; Van Overwalle & Baetens, 2009; Mitchell et al., 2004; Saxe & Kanwisher, 2003) and the FPCNA subsystem in regulating internal reflection (Dixon et al., 2018). Thus, the integration of these two processes during postencoding rest may help listeners learn about disclosers after interacting with them. Consistent with this interpretation, in Study 2, we found that other-focused thought during the rest period after patients' disclosures correlated with memory for patients' experiences. Interestingly, the primary neural findings in Study 1 were specific to postencoding rest; although there was evidence of greater connectivity for some networks while participants listened to patient videos versus science videos, it did not relate to subsequent patient memory. These patterns point to the intriguing possibility that idle rest after listening, above and beyond listening in the moment, is important for interpersonal learning and memory.

Graph-based network analyses in Study 1 provide further insight into which and how regions in these two networks help them work together to consolidate memory of disclosures. On average, regions in both the dMPFC subsystem and the FPCNA subsystem demonstrated higher participation (the extent to which regions can be considered “connector hubs” between networks) during postpatient rest, and their participation during postpatient rest correlated with memory for the patient videos. Of these regions, only the left ATL demonstrated significant participation and links to patient memory at the ROI level of analysis. This finding is consistent with past work showing that the ATL is critical to representing and retrieving information about others in memory (Wang et al., 2017; Olson et al., 2013). However, to our knowledge, this is the first study to reveal that the ATL may play an important role in bridging the dMPFC and FPCNA subsystems to support social learning and memory during postencoding rest.

Study 1 was also the first to compare consolidation during rest of social versus nonsocial naturalistic stimuli. Both sets of videos present information in a realistic style: The patient videos are real emotional disclosures posted on YouTube, and the science videos are real course material used by students in Khan Academy. Thus, results from Study 1 lend real-world relevance to past experimental findings with high internal validity but relatively impoverished external validity. In particular, our findings dovetail with past work showing that default network connectivity during postencoding rest helps consolidate basic facts about people (i.e., recognizing photographs of faces and associating traits and roles with them). Collectively, these results suggest one function of engaging the default network during rest may be to learn about the people we interact with day-to-day (Meyer, 2019; Meyer, Davachi, et al., 2019).

In addition, results from Study 1 lend real-world relevance to previous work identifying hippocampal–cortical connectivity in nonsocial memory consolidation. Connectivity between the hippocampus and core subsystem of the default network during the rest period after Khan Academy videos correlated with memory for the science facts communicated in these videos. On the one hand, these findings are at odds with past social neuroscience suggestions that the default network's core subsystem is associated with self-referential processing (Lieberman et al., 2019; Denny et al., 2012). On the other hand, the results align with other memory research implicating connectivity between the hippocampus and the MPFC (a region of the core subsystem) in memory consolidation more broadly (Eichenbaum, 2017; Euston, Gruber, & McNaughton, 2012). For example, hippocampal-MPFC connectivity during rest is associated with updating our knowledge of an unfolding story (van Kesteren, Fernández, Norris, & Hermans, 2010). Future research may reveal whether hippocampal-core subsystem connectivity during postencoding rest plays a general role in updating previous memories across both self-relevant and non-self-relevant stimuli.

Study 2 builds on the primary neural findings in Study 1 by illuminating the cognitive processes during rest that may aid in consolidating memory of emotional disclosures. Other-focused thought was uniquely elevated during rest after viewing videos of patients' disclosures and correlated positively with participants' memory for patients' experiences. These findings add to a growing area of research examining the neurocognitive processes associated with providing social support (Inagaki & Orehek, 2017; Inagaki & Eisenberger, 2012, 2016) and open interesting avenues for future investigation. For example, one direction for future research will be to examine whether (and how) memory consolidation during rest could help us learn about and support individuals in our own social networks. Indeed, one study found that greater dMPFC subsystem connectivity during rest corresponded with greater support-giving to a close other during the following month (Inagaki & Meyer, 2019). Although our findings pertained to learning about and providing support to new individuals, the ability to remember disclosures may also help us maintain our close social connections. The results also have interesting implications for provider–patient relationships. Patients overwhelmingly prefer doctors, nurses, and therapists who respond supportively to their disclosures (von Dietze & Orb, 2000; Ong, de Haes, Hoos, & Lammes, 1995; Miller, 1993; Thompson & Anderson, 1982). Our findings implicate brief rest after listening as a possible route to compassionate care.

Although our findings provide the first evidence to date on the role of rest in consolidating others' disclosures, they are not without limitations. First, our sample size of 40 participants in Study 1 is relatively underpowered to detect individual differences; our fMRI sample size was determined based on available funding, and future studies with larger samples are needed to replicate the correlations observed in Study 1. Second, although our two video-watching conditions vary in the inclusion of disclosure, they may vary on other dimensions as well, such as valence and interestingness, which could impact our results. In our view, these variables may be intrinsic to disclosures, and thus we chose to not control for them in this first study on consolidation of disclosures during rest. Instead, we chose the science videos as the control condition because they also involve hearing someone talk about CF, just not their personal experience with it. Third, it is also possible that the science videos were more challenging to comprehend than the patient videos. However, in our large sample in Study 2, participants' science memory performance was not significantly different from their patient memory performance, suggesting any differences in difficulty did not impact memory. Nonetheless, future research may help clarify the combination of ingredients in disclosures that contribute to their consolidation during rest.

In summary, we found that listeners consolidate information shared by disclosers, in part, by increasing dMPFC-FPCNA connectivity during rest. Moreover, listeners' ability to consolidate information about disclosers' experiences helped them support disclosers in their time of need. These results point to the critical, although previously overlooked, role of memory consolidation in facilitating supportive relationships. More broadly, the findings suggest that, in our increasingly busy lives, taking the time to briefly rest may not only help us care for ourselves but also help us care for others.

Reprint requests should be sent to Meghan L. Meyer, Dartmouth College, HB 6207 Moore Hall, Hanover, NH 03755, or via e-mail: Meghan.L.Meyer@Dartmouth.Edu.

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