Judge not?

I’ve talked about how people’s brains are continually trying to predict what’s going to come next, which is why we get misled by garden path sentences and sudden changes of direction.

A recent study of ERPs (Event-Related Potentials) by psychologist Jos J.A. Van Berkum from the Max Planck Institute in The Netherlands has shown that people’s brains show a specific spike (called the N400) when they hear a word that was unexpected or seems out of place.  Interestingly, the research also showed that it’s not just the words being spoken or read that matter, but other information as well.  As listeners, we also take into account clues from our perception of the speaker:

In addition to the words themselves, the person speaking them is a crucial component in understanding what is being said. Van Berkum also saw an N400 effect occurring very rapidly when the content of a statement being spoken did not match with the voice of the speaker e.g. “I have a large tattoo on my back” in an upper-class accent or “I like olives” in a young child’s voice. These findings suggest that the brain very quickly classifies someone based on what their voice sounds like and also makes use of social stereotypes to interpret the meaning of what is being said. Van Berkum speculates that “the linguistic brain seems much more ‘messy’ and opportunistic than originally believed, taking any partial cue that seems to bear on interpretation into account as soon as it can.”

The material used in the study was all in written or audio form, so there were no conclusions drawn about visual information about speakers.  I don’t think it would be a huge jump to assume that we also take visual clues about speakers into account, though.  It’s likely that we gather a lot of information about a speaker before they even open their mouth to talk. If they say something that doesn’t fit in with what we have assumed, it takes a moment to catch up again, much in the same way as it’s surprising to hear a tall, burly man speak with a high-pitched voice.

Full article from ScienceMode.