How our brains make sense of sentences

February 21st, 2009 - 5:05 pm ICT by ANI  

Washington, Feb 21 (ANI): ”Brain Storming” sessions often see people talking of a variety of topics, but how a person’’s brain quickly processes the meaning and understands what other people are saying at the same time is an ability that has always intrigued researchers.
Psychologist Jos J.A. Van Berkum from the Max Planck Institute in The Netherlands has now described how the brain turn seemingly random sounds and letters into sentences with clear meaning.
They have found that while listening, a person’’s brain tends to anticipate what the other person is about to say, which, combined with what the speaker has said before and the subject of conversation, makes the listener continuously process the meaning.
They have conducted experiments using brain waves to understand how people make sense of sentences.
They examined Event Related Potentials (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, and are useful for detecting the incredibly fast processes involved in understanding language, because of their speed.
For a long time, ERP analysis has indicated just how quickly the brain is able to relate unfolding sentences to earlier ones.
And researchers 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.
In addition to the words themselves, the person speaking them is a crucial component in understanding what is being said.
Thus, the psychologists concluded 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.
“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,” speculated Van Berkum.
The findings also disclosed the secret behind the speed with which the language brain acts-as we read or have a conversation, our brains are continuously trying to predict upcoming information.
Van Berkum said 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, which indicated that the brain will sometimes ignore the rules of grammar when trying to comprehend sentences.
Thus, it was found 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.
The study has been published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. (ANI)

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