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Syntax-induced pattern deafness

Endress, A. & Hauser, M. D. (2009). Syntax-induced pattern deafness. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 106(49), pp. 21001-21006. doi: 10.1073/pnas.0908963106


Perceptual systems often force systematically biased interpretations upon sensory input. These interpretations are obligatory, inaccessible to conscious control, and prevent observers from perceiving alternative percepts. Here we report a similarly impenetrable phenomenon in the domain of language, where the syntactic system prevents listeners from detecting a simple perceptual pattern. Healthy human adults listened to three-word sequences conforming to patterns readily learned even by honeybees, rats, and sleeping human neonates. Specifically, sequences either started or ended with two words from the same syntactic category (e.g., noun–noun–verb or verb–verb–noun). Although participants readily processed the categories and learned repetition patterns over nonsyntactic categories (e.g., animal–animal–clothes), they failed to learn the repetition pattern over syntactic categories, even when explicitly instructed to look for it. Further experiments revealed that participants successfully learned the repetition patterns only when they were consistent with syntactically possible structures, irrespective of whether these structures were attested in English or in other languages unknown to the participants. When the repetition patterns did not match such syntactically possible structures, participants failed to learn them. Our results suggest that when human adults hear a string of nouns and verbs, their syntactic system obligatorily attempts an interpretation (e.g., in terms of subjects, objects, and predicates). As a result, subjects fail to perceive the simpler pattern of repetitions—a form of syntax-induced pattern deafness that is reminiscent of how other perceptual systems force specific interpretations upon sensory input.

Publication Type: Article
Additional Information: Copyright National Academy of Sciences 2009.
Publisher Keywords: illusions, language acquisition, modularity, perception, syntax
Subjects: R Medicine > RC Internal medicine
Departments: School of Health & Psychological Sciences > Psychology
SWORD Depositor:
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