How Words Can Change Reality

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Studying the brain could help language teaching in the future

Simply learning words by rote is often not the hardest part of mastering a foreign language.

Using those words correctly to get your point across clearly in a new cultural context can be the far trickier task.

And anyone who has tried to learn a second language might find it hard to believe that this goal can be aided by scientists looking into the workings of the human brain. However, a study from Arizona State University (ASU) in the US has found a strong connection between the systems in the brain that are used to actually see an action and the ones that understand an action when it is described in words.

The ASU researchers believe this breakthrough could help academics develop news ways to teach languages to people who might need to converse fluidly in a second tongue, such as interpreters or those working abroad in jobs that require nuanced communication.

The experts, writing in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, suggest that the brain’s mirror neuron system (MNS) is used in both seeing an action and understanding a description of that action. But the study also uncovered a rather surprising fact – namely, that the way we see something can be altered through the language we otherwise use to describe it.

The study from Arthur Glenberg, a professor of psychology at Arizona State, along with former ASU student Noah Zarr and Ryan Ferguson, a graduate student in ASU’s Cognitive Science training area, looks at how the brain receives information in the form of a description and then creates a scenario of that action in the mind, known as a simulation.

They wanted to know to what degree the MNS was used in the simulation process. Scientists already know that MNS is used both when a person undertakes an action and when they observe an action.

The mirror neuron system allows you to understand why an action may have been taken by another person. For example, when you see someone hand a book to a third person, your MNS engages and helps you infer why you might hand someone a book. This then helps you understand why someone else might do this.

Prof Glenberg said: “Previous work has demonstrated that adapting the MNS can affect language comprehension. But no-one had yet shown that the process of language comprehension can itself change the MNS.”

To test if MNS is used in the simulation process, the researchers “used the fact that the MNS is used in both action and perception of action, and the idea that repeated use of a neural system leads to adaptation of that system”.

They set up an experiment that saw participants read a number of sentences involving the transfer of an object. They found that when the test subjects were then shown videos of this action taking place, their perception of the action was slightly impaired, in line withwhat they had read. This shows that “the reading modifies the same MNS used in action understanding”.

Glenberg added: “If language comprehension is a simulation process that uses neural systems of action, then perhaps we can better teach kids how to understand what they read by getting them to literally simulate the actions.”


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