Your Brain: A Sentence Machine

Your Brain: A Sentence Machine

             It’s remarkable with the onslaught of all the incoming and outgoing information that the brain can process and differentiate all the stimuli into coherent pieces of the puzzle which we call life.  It can’t always multi-task and has definite limitations—but have you ever wondered how it can keep up?  An exciting study shows us how the brain responds to the tiny differences in verbal communication which make all the difference! Behold the Sentence Machine: your brain, tirelessly weaving together words, thoughts, and experiences into the fabric of consciousness.

                Researchers from the Max Planck Institute of Psycholinguistics partnered with Radbound University to understand what makes the brain receive one set of sentences in a different way from a very similar sentence.  Until now, it’s largely remained a mystery; and with very little external cues from speech, scientists weren’t sure how the brain was able to work with such abstracts.

Deciphering Sentence Structure

                Using sentences was an ideal way to test how the brain sees speech because many sentences are made up of the same smaller segments, like words and phrases, but the way these words are arranged in a sentence makes a huge difference to the actual meaning of the sentence.  To discover how the brain might be able to contain such a vast network of speech integration, researchers watched EEG scans of the brain while simple sentences were spoken.

                Simple sentences, with matching syllables and meanings, mirrored everyday speech for EEG scans watched by researchers. For instance, “the vase is red” is similar to “the red vase.”  Adults identified sentences, matched images with colors or objects based on spoken sentences, and determined if they heard complete phrases.

                The EEG scans showed that the brain responded differently for phrases and sentences.  The neurons themselves fired in different patterns between these types of word configurations with differences in neural connectivity and timing.

                Knowing that timing plays an integral role in understanding speech is an important discovery.  Computer interfaces, despite our reliance, don’t yet match the human brain in understanding verbal language efficiently. The research team is hoping to apply this to future studies to elaborate on the complexities of spoken language.

Further Reading

Fan Bai, Antje S. Meyer, Andrea E. Martin. Neural dynamics differentially encode phrases and sentences during spoken language comprehensionPLOS Biology, 2022; 20 (7): e3001713 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.3001713

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