New research has zoomed in on the brain’s speech recognition abilities

New research has zoomed in on the brain’s speech recognition abilities, uncovering the mechanism through which the brain discerns between ambiguous sounds.

“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht the frist and lsat ltteer be at the rghit pclae.”

You, like many others, were probably able to read the above sentence without a problem — which is the reason for the mass online appeal this meme had more than a decade ago.

Psycholinguists explain that the meme is, in itself, false, as the exact mechanisms behind the brain’s visual “autocorrect” feature remain unclear.

Rather than the first and last letter being key to the brain’s ability to recognize misspelled words, explain the researchers, context might be of greater importance in visual word recognition.

New research, now published in the Journal of Neuroscience, looks into the similar mechanisms that the brain deploys to “autocorrect” and recognize spoken words.

Researcher Laura Gwilliams — from the Department of Psychology at New York University (NYU) in New York City and the Neuroscience of Language Lab at NYU Abu Dhabi — is the first author of the paper.

Prof. Alec Marantz, of NYU’s departments of Linguistics and Psychology, is the principal investigator of the research.

Gwilliams and team looked at how the brain untangles ambiguous sounds. For instance, the phrase “a planned meal” sounds very similar to “a bland meal,” but the brain somehow manages to tell the difference between the two, depending on the context.

The researchers wanted to see what happens in the brain after it hears that initial sound as either a “b” or a “p.” The new study is the first one to show how speech comprehension takes place after the brain detects the first sound.

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