If you think you are completely stupid, there is hope for you.
It’s not your fault. It’s your brain you should be blaming.
In the world we live in today, with smartphones blaring constant updates at us and music downloads coming out of our ears, how are we meant to concentrate in complicated scenarios when people actually speak to us?
A study published this week by neuroscientists and psychologists at the University of Glasgow showed that our brains often do not notice key words in sentences, leading us to miss their meaning altogether.
Researchers put a series of statements to 24 volunteers and then monitored their brain waves to see if they understood their meaning.
The statements were examples of semantic illusions, sentences containing some kind of anomaly. One of the most famous is the ‘Moses’ illusion, in which someone is asked how many animals of each kind did Moses bring on to the Ark in the Bible. For many of us, the instinctive answer is ‘two’, but those with their thinking caps on will realise that it was Noah – not Moses – who put the animals on the Ark.
In the Glasgow University test, backed by the Economic and Social Research Council, participants were given spoken sentences via a headset and then asked to either press a button marked ‘OK’ if they thought there was nothing wrong with the statement or ‘Nonsense’ if it contained an anomaly. They were also given the sentences to read.
The volunteers were initially given sentences in which the irregularity was easy to spot. An example was this: ‘The airline Kim flew with lost her donkey on the way there so she had no clothes.’ The detection of a problem with sentences like these was 95 per cent.
However, while distinguishing a mule from a suitcase may be simple, the subjects in the study had more difficulty with sneakier sentences, such as: ‘To make a cup of tea, pour the tea carefully and slowly from the kettle into the cup.’
Unless you are a student, you should be noticing something wrong with that sentence. For the rest of us, hot water comes out of a kettle, while tea tends to come from a teapot.
In the study, the detection rate dropped dramatically when it came to the 135 statements which were slightly more difficult to decipher, with up to 60 per cent of anomalies missed.
Through analysing the volunteers’ brain waves using electroencephalography (EEG) devices that read electrical activity in the brain, researchers found that when they had been tricked by the sentences, their brains hadn’t noticed the irregular word.
When they did notice a word that was incorrect, a negative voltage response was recorded in the brain. When they didn’t notice, there was no change in brain activity.
In semantic illusions, although the words fit in with the general context of the sentence, they are not accurate. However, we miss them because our brain is on a kind of auto-pilot because the context seems plausible.
The study goes against more traditional theories of linguistic understanding, which have indicated that our brains analyse every word we hear in a sentence. Instead, we merely process language based on a ‘shallow’ interpretation of what we have heard.
Professor Hartmut Leuthold, who was based at the Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging at the University of Glasgow and led the research, said: ‘Typically, researchers had assumed that we very deeply analyse and process any incoming information we get.’
However, he said the research presented a different outcome.
‘The basic idea is that our brains deal with that situation only in a very rough and quick check but it somehow makes sense. That’s the key finding.
‘Our brain has learned through evolution to just invest as little resources as necessary so everything runs smoothly.’
Yet this is not as damaging – or as lazy – as it may seem. Prof Leuthold said attempting to analyse the meaning of every word we hear would make our brains work very hard and make it difficult for us to to interact with others.
‘There are costs to that because if we analysed every incoming information in detail that would not be very efficient,’ he said. ‘Processing information takes time. If you analyse every single word or phrase very deeply with respect to all its possible meanings, then you would be in the mode where you check everything and that would take seconds and you could not have a standard conversation. Saving time is the main issue here. In language, the meanings of words are processed within two, three hundred milliseconds.’
Prof Leuthold said one of the reasons newsreaders stress certain words when telling their audience what is going on in the world is so that they will understand exactly what message is being conveyed.
He said the perception that we take every word into account when listening to something was outdated and that in many cases, we almost predict what people are going to say before they say it.
‘Meaning analysis in communication and dialogue is done on a more superficial level, it’s a very coarse analysis because we have a strong expectancy of what other people are saying in a given context,’ he said.
‘We simply coarsely check whether it makes sense and as long as it’s not a strong violation we probably wouldn’t realise really what’s going on.’
That may be so, but occasionally it may leave us looking very stupid indeed.
Spot what is wrong with these sentences, which are semantic illusions… (answers below)
1. A boxing match is meant to last for 12 rounds, each one lasting for three minutes. Whilst this brutal sport sees many deaths every year, none are actually serious, and the sport is very popular
2. If a plane crashes on the border between the US and Mexico, where do they bury the survivors?
3. A recent trial for the beating of a delinquent young boy shocked many – even the judge described it as appalling. In the end a five-year prison sentence was finally given to the victim for this terrible crime
4. A survey by a travel company asked their customers what they wanted in a holiday destination. Many British tourists picked Spain to get away from the high summer sun for two relaxing weeks
5. A man was attacked in a park and was stabbed and had his wallet stolen. As yet, there’s been no statement from the elderly man who was murdered, which is very unhelpful
6. Many people die, some because they are addicted smokers, and others because they inhale secondary smoke. Recently, the government decided to ban cigarette smoking in all private places to reduce smoking-related illnesses
7. The primary school teacher carefully prepared her lesson plan. The children would learn all 26 numbers that make up the whole alphabet in the classroom today
8. This is how to make the perfect cup of tea. When using a teabag, pour the tea carefully and slowly from the kettle into a china cup
9. After an American jumbo jet was forced at gunpoint to land in Canada, experts were quickly on hand to help. The authorities’ initial negotiations with the scared and desperate hostages helped calm the situation
10. Billy joined a local charity and asked his supervisor what they could do for the children. The volunteer worker went to take from the deprived children their Christmas presents and wish them luck
11. Whilst on the bus on her way home from work, Judith began to list her evening chores. She went home to wash and cook her three wild and unruly children before doing the vacuuming
12. How many animals of each kind did Moses bring on to the Ark?
What you shouldn’t have missed:
1. Deaths tend to be serious
2. You don’t bury survivors
3. Victims don’t get sentenced
4. Why leave the sunshine here?
5. Dead people don’t make statements
6. You can smoke in private
7. The alphabet is made up of letters
8. You pour water from a kettle, not tea. Unless you’re a student
9. You never negotiate with hostages. You try to save them
10. Good luck taking presents off children then wishing them luck
11. You are not allowed to cook your children
12. It was Noah’s Ark