Bright brains fall foul of nonsense word trap
THE human brain often does not notice key words that can change the whole meaning of a sentence, according to new research by psychologists at Glasgow University.
Professors Hartmut Leuthold and Anthony Sandford scanned the brains of healthy students at the university while they read or listened to sentences containing semantic anomalies.
They included: “After a plane crash, where should the survivors be buried?” and “Can a man marry his widow’s sister?”
Half the students fell headlong into the linguistic traps – forgetting that it is the dead, not the survivors, that are buried and that a man who has a widow is prevented from marrying anyone by the fact that he is dead.
By analysing patterns of brain activity when volunteers read or heard sentences containing hard-to-detect semantic anomalies – words that fit the general context even though they do not actually make sense – the Glasgow researchers found that when a volunteer was tricked by the semantic illusion, their brain had not even noticed the anomalous word.
Analyses also revealed that falling into the trap is more likely during difficult or multiple tasks.
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