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60-Second Science

Listener Anticipates Speaker's Word Choice

Functional MRI shows the brain in action, anticipating the next word a speaker will say based on context and the first part of the word sound. Steve Mirsky reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

While I’m talking, you’re not just passively listening. Your brain is also busy at work, guessing the next word that I will sa…vor before I actually speak it. You thought I was gonna say “say”, didn’t you. Our brains actually consider many possible words—and their meanings—before we’ve heard the final sound of the word in quest…of being understood.

Language comes flying at you at up to five syllables per second. So it was thought that listeners keep pace by anticipating a small subset of all words that the listener is familiar with. Think of how a Google search anticipates words based on the first few letters you type in. But now scientists have used functional magnetic resonance imaging to actually watch the brain consider different words. They report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that you narrow the choices by considering words that begin with the same sound. So if I say, “I tasted the sweetest can…your brain might already be priming itself to hear candy. Or maybe cantaloupe. But not candle. Who needs the Game Show Network? You’re always playing Match Game in your head.

—Steve Mirsky 

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