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Words change how the brain sees things

The brain is constantly making predictions about what it will see based on past experiences -- even a word heard seconds prior.

By Brooks Hays

MADISON, Wis., July 21 (UPI) -- Our version of the outside world is not always a reflection of true reality. What we see is influenced by our past experiences, our mood and more.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin have demonstrated the malleability of human perception by manipulating vision with words.

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In two recent studies, the first of which is published in the journal Neuroscience, cognitive scientists reveal the power of words in priming the brain for visual interpretation. Researchers tested the ability of study participants to recognize the compatibility of a photo and a verbal cue -- for example the word "dog" and photo of a dog.

Some viewers, however, were prefaced with nonverbal cues like a clip of a dog barking. The results show viewers were faster to recognize a match when primed with a verbal cue -- a word. Scientists have dubbed the phenomenon the "label advantage."

As researchers explain, the brain is constantly making predictions about what it will see. The simple act of hearing a word can influence this prediction process.

All of this experimentation was done while electrodes recorded the brain activity of study participants, detailing the viewers' manipulated perception in real time.

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"Even in that first hundred milliseconds of the earliest stages of visual processing, half a second before they respond, you can see language shaping perceptual mechanisms to make more effective predictions of what is about to occur," researcher Gary Lupyan, a psychology professor at Wisconsin, said in a press release.

But why don't nonverbal cues work as well or better?

"The volume and pitch of the bark can tell you not only that there's a dog nearby, but the size of the dog and whether it's angry or frightened or playful, right?" Lupyan asked.

But as Lupyan and his colleagues detailed in the newest of the two studies -- published week in the journal Cognition -- the specificity of a nonverbal cue may cordon off possible connections, limiting the brain's ability to recognize a link.

Say, for example, an acoustic guitar sound is played prior to a picture of an electric guitar-playing rocker. The word "guitar," on the other hand, puts the brain in the right frame of reference, but its generalness leaves open an array of possible connections.

"Language allows us this uniquely human way of thinking in generalities," Lupyan explained. "This ability to transcend the specifics and think about the general may be critically important to logic, mathematics, science, and even complex social interactions."

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