Scots scientists solve brain word process secrets

A SCOTS study found that bigger is better when it comes to processing words.

Glasgow University scientists have carried out research into how words are processed.Picture: Donald MacLeod

Researchers at Glasgow University found that our brains process words faster if they refer to big things, and slower if the word describes a small thing.

The experts found that big concrete words such as “ocean”, “dinosaur”, “cathedral” were read more quickly than small ones such as “apple”, “parasite” and “cigarette”.

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They also found that abstract words which are used for big, impressive things, such as “greed”, “genius”, “paradise” are processed quicker than words for smaller concepts, such as “haste”, “polite” and “intimate.”

The study, published in the online journal PLoS ONE, also involved researchers from Kent, Manchester and Oregon.

Participants were presented with a series of real words referring to objects and concepts both big and small, as well as nonsense, made-up words, totalling nearly 500 items. The different word types were matched for length and frequency of use.

The 60 participants were asked to press one of two buttons to indicate whether each item was a real word or not. This decision took just over 500 milliseconds or around a half second per item.

Results showed that words referring to larger objects or concepts were processed around 20 milliseconds faster than words referring to smaller objects or concepts.

Dr Sara Sereno, a Reader in the Institute of Neuroscience and Psychology who led the study said: “It seems that size matters, even when it’s abstract and you can’t see it.”

“This might seem like a very short period of time, but it’s significant and the effect size is typical for this task.”

Lead author Dr Bo Yao said: “It turned out that our big concrete and abstract words, like ‘shark’ and ‘panic’, tended to be more emotionally arousing than our small concrete and abstract words, like ‘acorn’ and ‘tight’.

“Our analysis showed that these emotional links played a greater role in the identification of abstract compared to concrete words.”

Co-author Prof Paddy O~Donnell said: “Even though abstract words don’t refer to physical objects in the real world, we found that it’s actually quite easy to think of certain concepts in terms of their size.

“Everyone thinks that ‘devotion’ is something big and that ‘mischief’ is something small.”

Bigger things it seems, whether real or imagined, grab our attention more easily and our brains process them faster, even when they are represented by written words.

The study was supported in part by an Economic and Social Research Council grant awarded to Dr Sereno.