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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, take you down to language town.
Coming up in today’s show: your brain on language.
But first, word history sponsored by Poo-Pourri, the before-you-go bathroom spray. Spritz some into the toilet bowl and your bowelly whiffs will be trapped by charming combinations of natural essential oils - no synthetic fragrances, which to me usually smell worse than whatever stench they’re trying to conceal. Also I’m happy to know that Poo-Pourri is free of parabens, formaldehyde, alcohol, and it’s a spray rather than an aerosol. Visit poopourri.com and get 20% off your next order by using the discount code ‘WORDS’ at checkout.
And courtesy of Poo-Pourri, here is the etymology of ‘banal’. ‘Ban’ has its roots in the old Germanic ‘bannan’, which meant to proclaim or forbid, so had a sense of a legal decree - including decrees, in medieval times and beyond, pertaining to the use of and payment for shared facilities such as ovens, wells and mills. With this sense of communality, ‘ban’ evolved in French to refer to compulsory service, so the word took on the idea of something applying to all, and thence to being commonplace. That’s what the French adjective ‘banal’ had come to mean by the time English nabbed it around 1840. And since, ‘banal’ has only become more negative; commonplace has degraded to hackneyed or trite. ‘Trite’, by the way, is from the Latin ‘tritus’, worn down, conveying the notion that something has become dull and overfamiliar from repeat use.
Possibly it is unwise of me to put these words in your mind before we embark upon today’s linguistic jaunt. Jaunt being from a 16th century term for tiring out a horse. Etymology is not on my side today.
On with the show.
JENNI RODD: So what we're trying to understand is the processes that are going on in your head right now as you try and understand what I'm saying.
HZ: Jenni Rodd is a cognitive psychologist at University College London, and I think she can look right through my skull to see those processes at work.
JR: If I could do that, that would make my job a whole heap easier. Unfortunately we can't look directly into your brain, so we have to come up with cunning and devious experiments that are the next best thing.
HZ: Experiments studying how people respond to language, written or spoken, sometimes while the subject undergoes an fMRI scan - functional magnetic resonance imaging - to show what the brain is up to.
JR: But what we want to understand is for each word that you hear, or possibly read, what it is that you're doing in your head to figure out what that individual word means, and then how you put those together to understand the meaning of sentences, paragraphs, conversations and so on.
HZ: Your brain is hard at it, RIGHT NOW! Well done, your amazing brain, for habitually coping with a task that is far from straightforward.
JR: I think what we're increasingly realising is how sophisticated people are in integrating lots of different cues to make these best guesses as they go along. And I think the computer scientists trying to develop software to allow our phones to do all this stuff are realizing quite how complicated the algorithms need to be to understand the meanings of words - because you look up just about any word in a dictionary and you'll find a whole host of meanings.
HZ: Little game for you: think of a word which only has one meaning. Er… 'dog'. No, that can be a noun and a verb. 'Shelf'. Ah - book or geological? 'Unkindness'. ...It’s an emotion and the collective noun for ravens. How about ‘unequivocal’?
JR: Unambiguous words are completely the exception. So if you try and think of an unambiguous word, it's incredibly difficult: all words have shades of meaning. So for example a word like 'run', you think, "That's quite simple: somebody runs, it's an action." But you can have a politician running for election; you can have a river running down a valley; you can have a film running at the cinema; and all these things mean slightly different things and you have to properly understand what somebody is saying, and you have to get to the right meaning.
HZ: Words usually don’t appear in isolation, so your brain will take into account the context.
JR: Absolutely. So if we're sitting here at UCL and I say to you, "Please pass me the mouse," you'll probably go to a look for a computer mouse rather than some small animal scurrying around the carpet. So you're using the context of where we are and what is plausible and likely for me to mean, for you to figure out what sort of mouse I'm referring to.
HZ: Right, so how is my brain coming to this correct conclusion?
JR: What your brain is doing is using multiple cues. So there's no one cue that is going to give you the right answer all of the time. You're constantly making best guesses, and sometimes you'll get it wrong. But the vast majority of time, you'll get it right; and you do that by using lots of different bits of information. So you'll use information about the context - so, where we are, what we've been talking about so far; you'll use information about the relative likelihoods, the probabilities of the two meanings, so for example, in your life, the computer mouse is probably more frequent than the animal mouse.
HZ: That does depend on whether I work in the Apple Store or pest control.
JR: All other things being equal, you would go for the word meaning that you'd encounter most often. You'd also use your recent experience; so if we had spent the last five minutes talking about rats and mice and zoos and pets, then you would have a different bias. So you can use your very recent history of that word to bias your interpretation. And there's lots of other cues, but all of these work together so that each meaning will be activated, if you like, in proportion to its likelihood. And on average that will give you the right answer.
HZ: While your brain is rapidly flipping through the options to find an appropriate meaning, this is what is happening inside it.
JR: If a particular part of your brain is working harder it needs additional energy to do that. And so it recruits additional blood flow to that region. And so we can look at those changes in blood flow and we can look to see how that varies depending on whether you're listening to an easy sentence or what sentence we can subtract the two and see which regions are showing different patterns.
HZ: That’s how the fMRI scan shows which regions of your brain are active during a linguistic task, by measuring those changes in blood flow. And though Jenni says fMRI is a fairly crude gauge of brain activity, it can show if particular linguistic forms are especially demanding.
JR: If I asked you to understand a sentence that had complex grammatical structure - so something like "The boy who had visited his grandma while wearing a red hat was angry" - you would see a lot more activation in the front area of the left hemisphere compared to a simple sentence such as, "The boy was angry." And similarly for words that have multiple meanings, so if I asked you to understand a sentence like "The jam was on the other motorway," where you've heard the word 'jam', you're thinking that probably has to do with toast and bread; and then you get to the word 'motorway' and you realized you've got it all wrong and you have to go back and re-figure it out.
HZ: Jenni found that with these examples where words could have multiple interpretations, the extra activity your brain performs is similar to how it responds to my old enemies: puns.
JR: What's going on with puns is they're constructed so that both meanings are relevant. But they're carefully constructed so that to get the pun, you have to find both meanings; whereas in natural language we almost do the opposite. We're trying to make sure that the person that is understanding the sentence is only understanding one meaning, and the other meaning is totally suppressed. We have no clue why puns are funny. We have no clue why this weird linguistic technique of activating two meanings simultaneously - why some people find that funny is totally unclear.
HZ: There's only so much a brain scanner can tell you.
Ambiguity is one challenge for your brain; conflicting information is another. There’s one particularly well-known test for this, you may have tried it, where the names of colours are written in different colours.
JR: Stroop experiments.
HZ: Named after the American psychologist John Ridley Stroop.
JR: Stroop experiments: you would see the word 'blue' written in red ink, and the task is to name the color of ink. And people find it very hard to do that when there's an inconsistency between the the word that's written and the color of the ink. This is always taken with evidence for the automaticity of reading, that we can't help but read the meaning of the word. And it's a really really robust finding.
HZ: And scans show that during Stroop tests, there is activation in the same area of the brain - the left frontal lobe - as when you’re trying to interpret sentences containing tricky ambiguous words, such as "The jam was on the other motorway."
JR: It's a case of: you've got conflicting information, when everything's the same, when you've got multiple cues pushing you in the same direction, it's easy. So when the color of the ink and the word and the ink is the same, it's easy; but as soon as those things are pushing you in different directions it's hard. So it's a bit like the jam example, where what makes that hard is the context; the words in the sentence are pushing you one way, and the frequency of the word is pushing you the other way, because the bread meaning is much more frequent. So you've got two conflicting cues pulling you in different directions, and it just takes a bit more effort, cognitive effort to resolve that conflict and decide how you're going to weight those cues and which meaning you're going to go for.
HZ: Which part of the brain is governing language comprehension?
JR: Most of it. So one of the most salient findings is if you put people in a brain scanner and you ask them to understand complicated connected language that you get lots of activation; mainly on the left side, although not exclusively, so there's lots of work showing that language is left lateralized. But that means that the left hemisphere does more in most people.
HZ: And before you get into that “left brain = plodder, right brain = creative” character analysis…
JR: The analytical thinker left brain, the creative artistic right brain: that's just nonsense. It's one of those ideas that seems to have got stuck in popular culture and I'm not really sure why; people seem to like it. They seem to like this idea that buried within us we have two people that are able to think in different ways, and really, there's there's no evidence to support that general claim.
HZ: And anyway, language is a prime combination of practicality, in its intent to convey meaning, and creativity, in the expression and interpretation of that meaning. Which makes it fascinating, and ever problematic.
JR: So the representation you're building in your head of what I'm saying is probably slightly different to the representation that I'm starting with. But as long as you're getting something close enough to what I intended, then hopefully it makes sense and we can carry on communicating. But it will never be exactly the same because there are all these shades of meaning.
HZ: It's amazing it goes as well as it does.
JR: It is. It is. And thinking about how computers do this stuff kind of makes us realise quite how clever we are really.
HZ: Yeah, computers, you may be able to process in a nanosecond far more information than my brain will ever know, but can you tell which type of jam I’m referring right now?
Clip of ‘Jam’ by Ivor Cutler:
What's your favourite jam?
Traffic jam. Traffic jam.
What's your favourite jam?
What's wrong with raspberry?
What's wrong with plum?]
Jenni Rodd is a cognitive psychologist based at University College London. You can find out more about her work with the Word Lab at jennirodd.com. @jennirodd is also her Twitter handle - worth following, because sometime you might be able to take part in one of her psychological tests.
This episode was sponsored by Bombas, makers of perfectly engineered socks. They spent two years designing their socks to be just right - they tested 133 different levels of tension so that your socks stay up without cutting off circulation to your legs. They also added a reinforced sole, for additional comfort and durability, and extra arch support - great if you’ve been walking for a few miles on your stupid bendy hypermobile feet like mine. But, Bombas have a 100% satisfaction guarantee, so if you’re not happy with your Bombas socks, they will give you your money back. Go to bombas.com and you’ll get 20% off 4 or more pairs today.
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Radiotopia sprouted into being thanks to the support of you generous listeners, the Knight Foundation, and Mailchimp. Mailchimp’s randomly selected word from the dictionary today is…
moniliform, adjective, zoology and botany: resembling a string of beads.
Try using it in an email today.
I learnt a word while making this episode: paronomasia, noun, the use of a word in different senses or the use of words similar in sound to achieve a specific effect, as humor or a dual meaning. It’s a posh term for puns.
This is your brain on language was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with Devon Taylor and Cheeka Eyers. The music is by Martin Austwick. You also heard a clip of Jam by Ivor Cutler. Thanks to Hrishikesh Hirway, of Radiotopian sibling Song Exploder, and the latest edition to the collective, The West Wing Weekly, essential listening for any West Wing fan.