Semantic illusions inhibit our understanding of language


NEW research from the University of Glasgow has shown how semantic illusions inhibit our understanding of language.

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.

For example: After a plane crash, where should the survivors be buried?

If you are considering the most appropriate burial site, you are not alone. Scientists from the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) found that around half of people asked this question answered it as though they were being asked about the victims.

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.

These so-called semantic illusions provide a strong line of evidence that the way we process language is often shallow and incomplete. This interests researchers, as the traditional models of language assume we build understanding of a sentence by analysing each word in turn.

By analysing the patterns of brain activity when volunteers read or listened to sentences containing 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.

We are more likely to use this type of shallow brain processing when we under stress or multitasking. Professor Leuthold at the University of Glasgow led a study to explore what is happening in our brains when we process sentences containing semantic illusions.

“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 Professor Leuthold.