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How do we process object state-changes during language comprehension?

A study carried out at the Centre for Psychological Research and Social Intervention (CIS-Iscte) explored how people process object state changes during language comprehension. The results could enhance our understanding of language and inform theoretical models of event cognition.

The image depicts a smashed banana inside a closed hand and banana parts over an orange background

© 2017 Laker | Pexels


According to authors Oleksandr Horchak and Margarida Garrido, researchers at CIS-Iscte, studies in the field of psycholinguistics (the area of psychology that investigates linguistic processes) have explored how people process changes in the states of objects during language comprehension. For example, what happens when someone reads a sentence about someone choosing a banana versus stepping on a banana?

“Our brains are sensitive to object state-changes, and the costs (difficulties) associated with keeping track of these multiple states can be significant,” explains Oleksandr Horchak. "For example, previous research showed that participants took more time to verify a picture of a banana in its original state after reading a sentence like (1) 'John stepped on a banana' than after reading a sentence like (2) 'John chose a banana. Likewise, the opposite was observed with a picture of a banana in its modified state: participants took less time to verify a picture of a banana after sentence (1) than (2). But are there other consequences of having to keep track of these different states of the same object?"

"The aim of our study was to determine whether people are sensitive to the states of semantically related objects, such as a mango and a banana, during event comprehension," says researcher Margarida Garrido. She adds, "There is substantial evidence indicating that when participants provide a ‘no’ response, their response times are slowed for highly related objects. For example, it is difficult to say that 'banana' was not mentioned in a sentence that mentioned another related fruit like 'mango.' However, what remains unknown is the extent to which responses may be delayed depending on the assumed state of the related object (original state of the mango vs. modified state of the mango). Oleksandr Horchak continues, “For example, could it be that participants’ rejection of a banana (i.e., the time taken to respond that a banana was not mentioned in the sentence) is further slowed when the events describe a substantial change, such as in ‘John stepped on a mango’?”

In the experiments of this study, participants read sentences about changes in the state of objects ("John chose/stepped on a mango" or "Jane chose/stepped on a guitar") and then saw an image of an object ("banana"). They had to decide whether that object had been mentioned in the previous sentence. In line with prediction, the results showed that verification times for a banana were slowed after reading a sentence describing a substantial change of a related object (‘John stepped on a mango’) compared to a sentence describing a minimal change (‘John chose a mango’). Importantly, verification times for a banana were unaffected after reading a sentence describing a substantial change of a completely unrelated object (‘John stepped on a guitar’). This rules out the possibility that the type of verb alone (e.g., action verb, stative verb) may slow down participants’ responses independent of the object mentioned in the sentence.


For the CIS-Iscte research team, the study provides evidence that people are sensitive to the multiple states of semantically similar objects, suggesting that comprehending events involves constructing dynamic representations of intersecting object histories. "These data are important for better understanding the cognitive processes involved in language comprehension and the mental representation of events through the integration of visual and linguistic information," conclude Oleksandr Horchak and Margarida Garrido.



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