In a recent paper, Nia Ding and colleagues in David Poeppel’s lab, made a big discovery: When understanding language, our brains are sensitive to the abstract hierarchical structure that governs it.
Can language turn you into a better see-er?
In my recent paper with Gary Lupyan (UW-Madison) I show that language is capable of altering the earliest stages of visual perception to the extent that on a simple cue-picture verification task, where participants first heard either a word (e.g., “dog”) or a sound (e.g., a dog barking) then saw a picture which matched the cue 50% of the time, they were faster and more accurate when the cue was a word. We call this “the label-advantage“. By recording our participants’ brain activity, using EEG, we were able to identify the source of this label-advantage. Words, literally jump-start your visual system, by preparing it to expect certain visual properties. We were able to detect that when cued by a word, the visual system is capable, to tell apart dogs from non-dogs within 100 ms. This was not the case when people were cued by a sound. In that situation their visual system was just as slow and just as hard at work as when it is trying to process something it has not expected.
When it comes to detecting objects in our environment, words give our visual system a head-start in the race. We believe that these findings revolutionise our understanding of the human cognition especially when it comes down to aspects of cognition that are thought to depend on the representation of categories such as inference, rule following, formal reasoning, and learning.