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When broccoli talk: Study explores how the brain processes fictional sentences

New research shows that our brains process information inconsistent with prior world knowledge differently. The study, led by a team of researchers from the Centre for Psychological Research and Social Intervention (CIS-Iscte) and the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, found that sentences describing food with inanimate features were more easily remembered than those describing food with animated features, in both the real-world and fictional contexts.

© 2023 Sara Soares from images of Buntysmum and Franco Antonio Giovanella


The study, conducted in the LAPSO lab from Iscte and published in the journal Brain and Language, used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity in participants while they read sentences about food either in a real-world or in a fictional scenario. In the fictional scenario, food had animated features, such as being grumpy or able to talk. “Our brain processes language really fast”, explains lead author Sara Soares, a PhD student from Iscte, adding that “difficulties elicited by incongruent information are usually observed through EEG approximately 400 ms after the critical word in the sentence is presented”. The researchers found that when participants read sentences about food with animated features in the real-world context, their brains showed a larger amplitude of the N400 component, indicating that sentence processing was more difficult. However, in the fictional context, there was no significant difference in brain activity between sentences about food with animated and inanimate features.


Overall, the results suggest that a minimal description of a fictional context is sufficient for our brains to adapt to information inconsistent with prior knowledge. “Most previous research found inconsistent information was more easily processed after a long contextual explanation as if that difficulty disappeared. In our study, eight sentences about an alternate reality in which food had human-like features were enough to change people’s ability to process this type of information”, Sofia Frade (CIS-Iscte) explains. Moreover, people remembered sentences better when food was described without human-like features. According to researcher Rita Jerónimo from CIS-Iscte, “this is because describing food in terms of inanimate features aligns with our prior knowledge of the world and is easier to remember.”


As stated by researcher Sonja Kotz,

“This study sheds light on how our brain processes information inconsistent with prior world knowledge and how context can influence that process”.

Researcher Sara Soares added that “these findings could have implications for understanding how we process and remember linguistic information in different contexts, such as educational materials or in advertising". The authors also highlight how this study may inform theoretical models about language but alert the need for further research that considers individual characteristics, such as proneness to fantasy, or cognitive flexibility ability, for example.

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