The Language Playing Field

Fenella Saunders in American Scientist:

20081021225236966-2008-11SOSaundersFA Sian Beilock, a psychologist at the University of Chicago, and her colleagues gathered a group of hockey players from college and minor-league teams, as well as avid fans and “novices” with no hockey experience whatsoever. The participants underwent a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan while they passively listened to a set of sentences that related either to everyday activities (“The individual pushed the cart”) or hockey actions (“The hockey player saved the shot”). The researchers recorded which areas of the brain the sentences activated in the three groups of participants.

After the scan, the participants heard the same sentences again, but this time they were asked to perform a matching task: After each sentence, they were shown a picture and selected, as quickly as possible, whether or not the illustration showed the action being described in the sentence.

Previous research has established that responses should be faster when the picture matches the sentence. “The idea is that if you understand the sentence better, then you should be better at discriminating between people performing actions that match versus people performing actions that don't,” Beilock explains. This result was true of all the participants for the everyday actions. But for the hockey-related sentences, only players and fans showed the effect.

Looking at the MRI scans, Beilock and her colleagues were able to account for the increased comprehension of hockey-related sentences in players and fans. Those two groups showed activation in the part of the brain called the left dorsal premotor cortex, an area that lights up as a person plans to perform a well-learned action—and not usually a brain region implicated in language comprehension.

More here.