Language can reveal the invisible, study shows

August 26, 2013 by Chris Barncard, University of Wisconsin-Madison

It is natural to imagine that the sense of sight takes in the world as it is—simply passing on what the eyes collect from light reflected by the objects around us.

But the eyes do not work alone. What we see is a function not only of incoming , but also how that information is interpreted in light of other , and may even be influenced by language.

Words can play a powerful role in what we see, according to a study published this month by University of Wisconsin–Madison cognitive scientist and Gary Lupyan, and Emily Ward, a Yale University graduate student, in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Perceptual systems do the best they can with inherently ambiguous inputs by putting them in context of what we know, what we expect," Lupyan says. "Studies like this are helping us show that language is a powerful tool for shaping perceptual systems, acting as a top-down signal to perceptual processes. In the case of vision, what we consciously perceive seems to be deeply shaped by our knowledge and expectations."

And those expectations can be altered with a single word.

To show how deeply words can influence perception, Lupyan and Ward used a technique called continuous flash suppression to render a series of objects invisible for a group of volunteers.

Each person was shown a picture of a familiar object—such as a chair, a pumpkin or a kangaroo—in one eye. At the same time, their other eye saw a series of flashing, "squiggly" lines.

"Essentially, it's visual noise," Lupyan says. "Because the noise patterns are high-contrast and constantly moving, they dominate, and the input from the other eye is suppressed."

Immediately before looking at the combination of the flashing lines and suppressed object, the study participants heard one of three things: the word for the suppressed object ("pumpkin," when the object was a pumpkin), the word for a different object ("kangaroo," when the object was actually a pumpkin), or just static.

Then researchers asked the participants to indicate whether they saw something or not. When the word they heard matched the object that was being wiped out by the , the subjects were more likely to report that they did indeed see something than in cases where the wrong word or no word at all was paired with the image.

"Hearing the word for the object that was being suppressed boosted that object into their vision," Lupyan says.

And hearing an unmatched word actually hurt study subjects' chances of seeing an object.

"With the label, you're expecting pumpkin-shaped things," Lupyan says. "When you get a visual input consistent with that expectation, it boosts it into perception. When you get an incorrect label, it further suppresses that."

Experiments have shown that continuous flash suppression interrupts sight so thoroughly that there are no signals in the brain to suggest the invisible objects are perceived, even implicitly.

"Unless they can tell us they saw it, there's nothing to suggest the brain was taking it in at all," Lupyan says. "If language affects performance on a test like this, it indicates that language is influencing vision at a pretty early stage. It's getting really deep into the visual system."

The study demonstrates a deeper connection between language and simple sensory perception than previously thought, and one that makes Lupyan wonder about the extent of language's power. The influence of language may extend to other senses as well.

"A lot of previous work has focused on vision, and we have neglected to examine the role of knowledge and expectations on other modalities, especially smell and taste," Lupyan says. "What I want to see is whether we can really alter threshold abilities," he says. "Does expecting a particular taste for example, allow you to detect a substance at a lower concentration?"

If you're drinking a glass of milk, but thinking about orange juice, he says, that may change the way you experience the milk.

"There's no point in figuring out what some objective taste is," Lupyan says. "What's important is whether the milk is spoiled or not. If you expect it to be orange juice, and it tastes like orange juice, it's fine. But if you expected it to be milk, you'd think something was wrong."

Explore further: Study shows language can cause the invisible to be seen

Related Stories

Study shows language can cause the invisible to be seen

August 13, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Researchers Gary Lupyan and Emily Ward from the University of Wisconsin and Yale respectively, have run experiments that show that in some instances, language can cause objects that are obscured from view, ...

Children learn better when they figure things out for themselves, research finds

February 25, 2013
(Medical Xpress)—Research conducted by Penn State Brandywine Assistant Professor of Human Development and Family Studies Jennifer Zosh has discovered that toddlers learn new words more effectively by using their knowledge ...

Am I crazy? Talking to yourself has cognitive benefits, study says

April 18, 2012
"One advantage of talking to yourself is that you know at least somebody's listening." - Franklin P. Jones

How rats see things

April 4, 2013
The image of an object, when projected into the eyes, may take on the most diverse shapes depending on the chosen point of view, as this can change its distance, perspective and so on, yet generally we have no difficulty ...

Recommended for you

Short-course treatment for combat-related PTSD offers expedited path to recovery

January 23, 2018
Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) can be debilitating and standard treatment can take months, often leaving those affected unable to work or care for their families. But, a new study demonstrated that many ...

Curcumin improves memory and mood, study says

January 23, 2018
Lovers of Indian food, give yourselves a second helping: Daily consumption of a certain form of curcumin—the substance that gives Indian curry its bright color—improved memory and mood in people with mild, age-related ...

Priming can negate stressful aspects of negative sporting environments, study finds

January 23, 2018
The scene is ubiquitous in sports: A coach yells at players, creating an environment where winning is the sole focus and mistakes are punished. New research from the University of Kansas shows that when participants find ...

Social and emotional skills linked to better student learning

January 23, 2018
Students with well-developed and adaptive social and emotional behaviours are most likely to excel in school, according to UNSW researchers in educational psychology.

People with prosthetic arms less affected by common illusion

January 22, 2018
People with prosthetic arms or hands do not experience the "size-weight illusion" as strongly as other people, new research shows.

Intensive behavior therapy no better than conventional support in treating teenagers with antisocial behavior

January 19, 2018
Research led by UCL has found that intensive and costly multisystemic therapy is no better than conventional therapy in treating teenagers with moderate to severe antisocial behaviour.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.