What They Say, and What You Hear, Can Differ

Posted July 17th, 2012 at 3:42 pm (UTC+0)
3 comments

(Photo: spaceamoeba via Flickr/Creative Commons)

(Photo: spaceamoeba via Flickr/Creative Commons)

The brain isn’t always entirely accurate when it comes to processing language, according to a new study.

The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) finds we may not be processing every word see hear or read.

This can mean our brain doesn’t pick up on changes made to key words in a sentence, even if they change its meaning.

Consider this  example: “After a plane crash, where should the survivors be buried?”

Many of us pick up on words like “plane crash” and “buried,” so we may think we’re being asked where those who died in the crash should be buried, rather than realizing the question is about those who actually survived the crash.

The study shows that roughly half the people asked this question answer it as if they are being asked about the victims and not the survivors.

Or try this: “Can a man marry his widow’s sister?”

According to the study, most people answer in the affirmative, not realizing they’re agreeing that a dead man can  marry his bereaved wife’s sister.

This has something to do with what are known as semantic illusions.

(Photo: Moritz Petersen via Flickr/Creative Commons)

(Photo: Moritz Petersen via Flickr/Creative Commons)

These are words that may fit the general context of a sentence, even though they don’t actually make sense. They can challenge  traditional methods of language processing, which assumes we develop our understanding of a sentence by thoroughly weighing the meaning of each  word.

Instead, the researchers  found  these semantic illusions show that, rather than listening and analyzing each word, our language processing is based only on  shallow and incomplete interpretations of what we hear or read.

To find out what’s happening in our brains when we process sentences containing semantic illusions, Professor Hartmut Leuthold, from the Center for Cognitive Neuroimaging at the University of Glasgow, led his colleagues in research that used Electroencephalography (EEG) devices to read, measure and record ‘brain waves’.

Looking at the EEG patterns of volunteers who read or listened to sentences containing semantic anomalies, researchers found that when  volunteers were tricked by the semantic illusion,  their brains had not even noticed the unusual words.

Man wired up with electrodes for EEG monitoring (Photo: Douglas Myers via Wikimedia Commons)

Man wired up with electrodes for EEG monitoring (Photo: Douglas Myers via Wikimedia Commons)

The researchers’ analysis also showed that the volunteers used these shallow processing methods even more when they were stressed or faced more difficult or multiple tasks.

If you want to make sure that the correct message gets across to your listener or reader, the study suggests a few  tricks.

“We know that we process a word more deeply if it is emphasized in some way.  So, for example in a news story, a newsreader can stress important words that may otherwise be missed and these words can be italicized to make sure we notice them when reading,” says Leuthold.

The way we construct sentences can also help reduce misunderstandings.

“It’s a good idea to put important information first because we are more likely to miss unusual words when they are near the end of a sentence,” he says. “Also, we often use an active sentence construction such as ‘Bob ate the apple’ because we make far more mistakes answering questions about a sentence with a passive construction – for example ‘The apple was eaten by Bob’.”

Researchers believe the findings not only offer better insight into the various processes  used in our comprehension of language but also, according to  Leuthold, knowing what is happening in the brain when mistakes occur can help us to avoid the pitfalls – such as missing critical information in textbooks or legal documents – and to communicate more effectively.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

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3 Responses to “What They Say, and What You Hear, Can Differ”

  1. cecil says:

    In the context of what this article surmises does the cultural orientation and common idiosyncratic nature of a culture influence what is heard and what is ignored in conversation in as much as what part or aspects of the message is most important.

  2. JC says:

    I am amazed anyone would answer yes to the question “Can a man marry his widow’s sister?”

    It seems that common sense is not so common after all.

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