Far from processing every word we read or hear, our brains often do not even notice key words that can change the whole meaning of a sentence, according to new research from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).
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.
What makes researchers particularly interested in people's failure to notice words that actually don't make sense, so called semantic illusions, is that these illusions 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.
Instead semantic illusions provide a strong line of evidence that the way we process language is often shallow and incomplete.
Professor Leuthold at University of Glasgow led a study using electroencephalography (EEG) to explore what is happening in our brains when we process sentences containing semantic illusions.
By analysing the patterns 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 - the researchers found that when a volunteer was tricked by the semantic illusion, their brain had not even noticed the anomalous word.
Analyses of brain activity also revealed that we are more likely to use this type of shallow processing under conditions of higher cognitive load - that is, when the task we are faced with is more diffi
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Economic & Social Research Council