February 22, 2024

Hearing grammatical errors affects your heart rate variability

Indeed, our hearts can ‘skip a beat’ when we hear grammatical errors in speech. From a new study published in the Journal of Neurolinguisticsresearchers discovered that our heart rate variability, a measure of the rhythm of the heartbeat, changes in response to grammatical errors in speech. This finding suggests that there is a deep and measurable connection between our physiological responses and our implicit understanding of language.

Scientists have long been fascinated by the way we process language – an ability that often operates outside our conscious radar. Understanding this process is crucial not only for academic curiosity, but also for practical applications such as designing effective learning resources or diagnosing language-related cognitive problems. Until now, researchers have largely relied on direct questions or tasks to measure language comprehension. However, these explicit methods can be distorted by biases or the individual’s ability to articulate their knowledge.

Recognizing the limitations of explicit measures, the authors of the new study turned their attention to implicit measures, which infer knowledge and cognitive processes from indirect, performance-based tasks.

“On the one hand, there was the challenge of developing a reliable method that can be used across a wide range of populations, to tap into aspects of cognition that are not directly observable, or where it is necessary to meet the required to provide an explicit evaluative judgment, for example when working with populations who cannot yet or can no longer express their opinions due to (young/old) age or poor health (whether physical or cognitive/mental),” explains study author Dagmar Divja (@dagmardivjak), professor at the University of Birmingham and author of ‘Frequency in Language’.

“On the other hand, I had a suspicion that some people (myself included!) are more annoyed by grammar mistakes than others, and I started wondering if this would have a measurable physical manifestation and if we could capture this. We knew that our students respond to ‘stress’: when something is scary or difficult, our students grow up. Heart rate is regulated by the same autonomic nervous system, so it was expected that we would also find an effect on heart rate.”

For their study, the researchers recruited 41 native speakers of British English, aged 18 to 44. These individuals were carefully selected to ensure a range of educational backgrounds and familiarity with foreign accents, but without known learning disabilities or heart rhythm problems. Participants listened to 40 short audio samples of English speech. Half of these examples contained grammatical errors specifically related to the use of articles, such as ‘a’, ‘een’ and ‘the’. To add complexity and realism, the speech samples were presented in different accents (British and Polish) and spoken by both male and female voices.

To create these speech samples, the researchers used transcripts of interviews on common topics. They then deliberately introduced errors into half of these transcriptions. In some cases, articles have been wrongly added or omitted. The error density in these samples ranged from 18% to 56%, meaning that some samples contained more grammatical errors than others.

While the participants listened to these samples, their cardiovascular activity, and especially their heart rate variability, was closely monitored. This measure reflects the variation in time intervals between heartbeats and is influenced by the autonomic nervous system, the part of our nervous system that controls bodily functions such as heart rate and digestion.

Divjak and her colleagues found that when participants listened to speech with grammatical errors, their heart rate variability changed noticeably. There was a significant decrease in heart rate variability in response to speech containing grammatical errors. This decrease was more pronounced when the error density in speech was between 20% and 40%.

Interestingly, the decrease in heart rate variability was greater when the grammatical errors were made by native speakers of English rather than by non-native speakers. This suggests that errors made by native speakers were less expected and thus had a greater impact on the listeners’ physiological responses.

“Our students respond to ‘stress’: when something is scary or difficult, our students grow up,” says Divjak. “Heart rate is regulated by the same autonomic nervous system, so it was expected that we would also find an effect on heart rate. But showing that in practice was a completely different matter!”

“It was fascinating to see how many dimensions of our experience we actually record, even if we are not aware of it: in this case, people really showed sensitivity to ‘minor’ language errors and also knew that these errors were more unusual for native speakers than for non-native speakers.”

The study bridges the gap between physiological responses and cognitive functions. By showing that our heart rate can be linked to language processing, it supports the idea that cognitive activities, even those as complex as language processing, have physical manifestations in the body.

As Divja told PsyPost: “Our findings bring two things into focus: 1.) a new dimension of the complicated relationship between physiology and cognition, suggesting that cognitive effort reverberates through the physiological system in more ways than previously thought, and 2 .) a better idea of ​​how many dimensions of our experience we are actually capturing, how specific our expectations are, even if we are not aware of them. Accurately assessing an individual’s language skills, regardless of his or her age and physical or cognitive abilities, is important for many questions relating to core areas of life related to cognition, including brain health.”

But the study, like all research, has some limitations. First, the study focused on a specific aspect of language – grammatical errors in spoken language – and involved a relatively small and homogeneous group of participants. Future studies could expand the scope to include a broader range of linguistic aspects and a broader demographic of participants. To fully understand the universality of these findings, it would be helpful to replicate the research across different languages ​​and cultural backgrounds.

“As is always the case with ‘first’ discoveries, it would be good to see more work using this technique, in different contexts involving language,” Divja said. “We also hope that our method will be adopted by researchers and clinicians interested in language cognition and who work with populations that are difficult to reach or test to enable accurate assessments and ensure better outcomes.”

Despite these limitations, the study opens exciting new avenues for research. It suggests that cardiovascular measures, especially heart rate variability, may be valuable tools to implicitly assess linguistic knowledge.

“From an applied perspective, we are now working to determine whether the responses we recorded are in any way related to personality and should be taken into account in high-stakes situations,” Divjak explains. “For example, if we find that conscientious people react more strongly to language errors, does that mean that they have a more negative attitude toward people who make mistakes, and could that mean, for example, that they are less likely to hire a foreign applicant? when they interview candidates for vacancies?”

“The research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust through a Research Leadership Award to Dagmar Divjak and was carried out at the University of Birmingham,” she added.

The study, “Physiological Responses and Cognitive Behavior: Heart Rate Variability Measures, Index Language Knowledge,” was authored by Dagmar Divjak, Hui Sun, and Petar Milin.

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