Why does power come into people's heads?

Psycholinguistics : Images in the head have less power than expected

The small room has no windows and is only furnished with a table and a chair. The test person wears a bathing cap with electrodes on his head. A film can be seen on a screen: Male hands are holding a cake pan. Then a voice can be heard through the headphones: “The woman is baking the cake.” A comparison is made in the subject's brain within milliseconds: Does the information from the film and the language match? The mental work can be seen in the brain waves. The data rattles on the scientists' monitoring computers.

The Institute for German Language and Linguistics at Humboldt University has several laboratories in Dorotheenstrasse in Mitte. Here, the psycholinguist Pia Knoeferle and her team are researching how language and images interact in the brain. Eye-tracking devices are available for this, electroencephalographs (EEG) and devices that measure reaction time. For as banal as the tasks appear to the test persons at first glance, the research that Knoeferle conducts with her empirical experiments is just as complex. Much of what happens in the brain while people see and hear is still completely unclear.

Older people tend to filter out negative factors in communication

Example: smiling people who speak. Do the listeners perceive the content differently, depending on the speaker's facial expressions? “It seems reasonable to assume that emotions play a major role in communication,” explains Knoeferle. In the laboratory, however, the effects of facial expressions could only be partially confirmed.

Instead, another interesting fact came to light: Younger people react more to negative facial expressions, older people more to positive ones. What might that be? Older people may simply filter out external factors that affect their wellbeing, says Knoeferle. "But we don't yet know whether such trained behavioral strategies are really responsible for the often unconscious eye movements that take place within milliseconds."

Neurolinguistic research is a relatively new branch of research. It wasn't until the early 1980s that cognitive scientists began to literally look into people's heads. Since then, measurement techniques have continued to refine and have also conquered linguistics. Today, on the one hand, it is possible to use functional magnetic resonance imaging to make active brain regions visible. On the other hand, linguists use EEG devices to measure brain waves. The eye-tracking methods, which have been used for decades, now also provide much more accurate results than they did in the 20th century. The smallest enlargement of the pupil and minimal eye movements can be recorded.

Motor skills help with understanding

Scientific methods have crept into linguistics. "In the past, linguistics mainly dealt with syntax, semantics, phonetics and phonology," says Knoeferle - that is, with sentence structure, word meaning, phonology and language properties. Linguists researched language primarily on paper, developing complex theories about its structures. Now finally the formal models and systems can be checked in the laboratory.

How does understanding work, what happens during language acquisition, what role does the body play? The first answers are available: For example, the American scientists Art Glenberg and Michael Kaschak were able to demonstrate through a series of tests that physical movements actually have an effect on speech understanding. The sentence “The woman opens the drawer” is understood faster and better if the listener also makes a similar arm movement - hand towards his own body. Motor skills that reflect language content make understanding easier.

Knoeferle specializes in investigating the interplay between speech understanding and visual observation. Anyone who hears "sugared pancakes" and sees sugared strawberries is irritated for a moment. How long does it take a person to sort contradicting impressions? And what has a stronger effect: the image that a test participant sees directly in front of him - or the expectations in his head that are fed from the life experience?

The context of action is stronger than the "images" in the head

The experiment described at the beginning dealt with precisely this question. Pictures and words of cake, of men, of women - what is correct in terms of content, what fits together? The subjects did not allow themselves to be distracted by their knowledge of gender stereotypes; they trusted the information in the picture. Knoeferle finds this extremely interesting: "It shows that the immediate context of action has a strong influence on language processing." This influence is probably even more dominant than the prefabricated "images" in the head.

What Knoeferle and her employees do is basic research. But the more knowledge psycholinguistics provides, the more diverse the future application possibilities. Especially with regard to advertising, marketing, navigation or education - wherever language and visual information are combined. Germany is well positioned in the research area, says Knoeferle. Research in the fields of psycholinguistics, neurosciences and cognitive sciences is not only carried out at the Humboldt University, there are also corresponding professorships in Saarbrücken and Leipzig.

Knoeferle also has expansion plans for Berlin. She is currently trying to set up another laboratory that other scientists and doctoral students could use. She is currently working on a new experiment. This time it's about understanding poetry, a special kind of linguistic context. "But we're still at the very beginning."

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