The Perse School

Understanding the meanings of words

25 Feb 2015

On Monday lunchtime, students welcomed Dr Jenni Rodd, Senior Lecturer in Experimental Psychology at UCL for the first ‘42’ lecture of the new half term. Her fascinating talk gave an insight into how we understand the meanings of words, particularly when a sentence includes ambiguous words.

In order to demonstrate how we understand such ambiguous words, Jenni read a list of words such as ‘bank’, ‘bulb’ and ‘table’ to the students, asking them to note down an associated word. For example, on hearing the word ‘bank’, almost all students wrote a word associated with money as this is the most common use of the word. ‘Bulb’ elicited most responses related to plants as the previous word she read out was ‘daffodil’, illustrating that our brains our biased to retrieve a meaning based on context. She also showed that recent experiences also shape peoples’ understanding, as upon hearing ‘bark’, most pupils responded with ‘dog’ as Jenni had referred to dogs and barking at the start of the session! Characteristics of the speaker also affect how we understand the meaning of a word – for example, if the word ‘gas’ was spoken by an American, it is likely the students would write something associated with cars or petrol, but as it was spoken in a British accent, they opted for the words related to the ‘gaseous form of a substance’ instead.

This simple test clearly demonstrated that our successful understanding of words results from our brains utilising a range of different cues, from looking at frequent meanings of a word and sentence context to accessing information about recent experiences and information about the speaker.

Jenni explained that although high-tech methods such as eye trackers and MRI scanners are fantastic at helping us understand the timing of processes in the brain and specific brain mechanisms, traditional low-tech methods such as the ‘pen and paper’ task she undertook in the lecture, can be just as valuable in terms of the results they produce.

Summarising why this field of research is important she said: “It is now no longer enough to understand what, we as psychologists want to understand ‘how’.”

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