A new study finds that we are often sloppy in processing or interpreting language, as investigators determined our brains often do not notice key words that can change the whole meaning of a sentence.
For example: After a plane crash, where should the survivors be buried?
If you are considering where the most appropriate burial place should be, you are not alone. Scientists have found that around half the people asked this question, answer it as if they were being asked about the victims not the survivors.
Similarly, when asked “Can a man marry his widow’s sister?” most people answer “yes” — effectively answering that it would indeed be possible for a dead man to marry his bereaved wife’s sister.
Researchers call the failure to notice words that actually don’t make sense a semantic illusion. These challenge traditional models of language processing which assume that we build understanding of a sentence by deeply analysing the meaning of each word in turn. Rather, semantic illusions suggest the way we process language is often shallow and incomplete.
In the new study, researchers used electroencephalography (EEG) to explore what is happening in our brains when we process sentences containing semantic illusions.
Analysis of brain activity when volunteers read or listened to sentences containing hard-to-detect semantic anomalies — words that fit the general context even though they do not actually make sense — demonstrated that when a volunteer was tricked by the semantic illusion, their brain had not even noticed the anomalous word.
Researchers also determined that we are more likely to use this type of shallow processing when we face a difficult task or experience cognitive overload when dealing with more than one task at a time.
Experts say the findings provide a better understanding of the processes involved in language comprehension and can help us understand why mistakes occur. This knowledge can help us to avoid pitfalls such as missing critical information in textbooks or legal documents and to communicate more effectively.
There are a number of tricks we can use to make sure we get the correct message across: “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,” said researcher Hartmut Leuthold, Ph.D., at the University of Glasgow.
The way we construct sentences can also help reduce misunderstandings, he said: “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.
“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’.”
Experts say the study clearly shows that we should avoid multitasking when we are reading or listening to an important message: “For example, talking to someone on the phone while driving on a busy motorway or in town, or doing some homework while listening to the news might lead to more shallow processing,” said Leuthold.