Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

How We Think Before We Speak: Making Sense Of Sentences

Date:
February 23, 2009
Source:
Association for Psychological Science
Summary:
How does the brain turn seemingly random sounds and letters into sentences with clear meaning? Recent findings suggest that, as we read or have a conversation, our brains are continuously trying to predict upcoming information. These findings reveal that our brains very rapidly draw upon a wide range of information, including what was stated previously and who the speaker is, in helping us understand what is being said to us.

We engage in numerous discussions throughout the day, about a variety of topics, from work assignments to the Super Bowl to what we are having for dinner that evening. We effortlessly move from conversation to conversation, probably not thinking twice about our brain's ability to understand everything that is being said to us. How does the brain turn seemingly random sounds and letters into sentences with clear meaning?

In a new report in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychologist Jos J.A. Van Berkum from the Max Planck Institute in The Netherlands describes recent experiments using brain waves to understand how we are able to make sense of sentences.

In these experiments, Van Berkum and his colleagues examined Event Related Potentials (or ERPs) as people read or heard critical sentences as part of a longer text, or placed in some other type of context. ERPs are changes in brain activity that occur when we hear a certain stimulus, such as a tone or a word. Due to their speed, ERPs are useful for detecting the incredibly fast processes involved in understanding language.

Analysis of the ERPs has consistently indicated just how quickly the brain is able to relate unfolding sentences to earlier ones. For example, Van Berkum and colleagues have shown that listeners only need a fraction of a second to determine that a word is out of place, given what the wider story is about. As soon as listeners hear an unexpected word, their brain generates a specific ERP, the N400 effect (so named because it is a negative deflection peaking around 400 milliseconds). And even more interesting, this ERP will usually occur before the word is even finished being spoken.

In addition to the words themselves, the person speaking them is a crucial component in understanding what is being said. Van Berkum also saw an N400 effect occurring very rapidly when the content of a statement being spoken did not match with the voice of the speaker (e.g. "I have a large tattoo on my back" in an upper-class accent or "I like olives" in a young child's voice). These findings suggest that the brain very quickly classifies someone based on what their voice sounds like and also makes use of social stereotypes to interpret the meaning of what is being said. Van Berkum speculates that "the linguistic brain seems much more 'messy' and opportunistic than originally believed, taking any partial cue that seems to bear on interpretation into account as soon as it can."

But how does the language brain act so fast? Recent findings suggest that, as we read or have a conversation, our brains are continuously trying to predict upcoming information. Van Berkum suggests that this anticipation is a combination of a detailed analysis about what has been said before with taking 'quick-and-dirty' shortcuts to figure out what, most likely, the next bit of information will be.

One important element in keeping up with a conversation is knowing what or whom speakers are actually referring to. For example, when we hear the statement, "David praised Linda because. . .," we expect to find out more about Linda, not David. Van Berkum and colleagues showed that when listeners heard "David praised Linda because he. . .," there was a very strong ERP effect occurring with the word "he," of the type that is also elicited by grammatical errors. Although the pronoun is grammatically correct in this statement, the ERP occurred because the brain was just not expecting it. This suggests that the brain will sometimes ignore the rules of grammar when trying to comprehend sentences.

These findings reveal that, as we make sense of an unfolding sentence, our brains very rapidly draw upon a wide range of information, including what was stated previously and who the speaker is, in helping us understand what is being said to us. Sentence understanding is not just about diligently combining stored word meanings. The brain rapidly throws in everything it knows, and it is always looking ahead.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Association for Psychological Science. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Van Berkum et al. Understanding Sentences in Context: What Brain Waves Can Tell Us. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 2008; 17 (6): 376 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00609.x

Cite This Page:

Association for Psychological Science. "How We Think Before We Speak: Making Sense Of Sentences." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 23 February 2009. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090220102254.htm>.
Association for Psychological Science. (2009, February 23). How We Think Before We Speak: Making Sense Of Sentences. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 30, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090220102254.htm
Association for Psychological Science. "How We Think Before We Speak: Making Sense Of Sentences." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/02/090220102254.htm (accessed September 30, 2014).

Share This



More Mind & Brain News

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Do Video Games Trump Brain Training For Cognitive Boosts?

Do Video Games Trump Brain Training For Cognitive Boosts?

Newsy (Sep. 29, 2014) More and more studies are showing positive benefits to playing video games, but the jury is still out on brain training programs. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Your Spouse's Personality May Influence Your Earnings

Your Spouse's Personality May Influence Your Earnings

Newsy (Sep. 26, 2014) Research from Washington University suggest people with conscientious spouses have greater career success. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Can A Blood Test Predict Psychosis Risk?

Can A Blood Test Predict Psychosis Risk?

Newsy (Sep. 26, 2014) Researchers say certain markers in the blood can predict risk of psychosis later in the life. The test can aid in early treatment for the condition. Video provided by Newsy
Powered by NewsLook.com
Harpist Soothes Gorillas, Orangutans With Music

Harpist Soothes Gorillas, Orangutans With Music

AP (Sep. 25, 2014) Teri Tacheny, a harpist, has a loyal following of fans who appreciate her soothing music. Every month, gorillas, orangutans and monkeys amble down to hear her play at the Como Park Zoo in Minnesota. (Sept. 25) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:

Breaking News:

Strange & Offbeat Stories


Health & Medicine

Mind & Brain

Living & Well

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile: iPhone Android Web
Follow: Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe: RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins