The Influence of Pronouns in Brain Function

A neat little study from the University of South Carolina touches on both linguistic anthropology and neuroscience, Bizzaro Comicspecifically the importance of pronouns in keeping the brain from becoming overloaded.

From Science Daily,

“The brain responds to proper names by creating a representation of the person in the mind, drawing from various parts of the brain to construct complex visual, sound and other information associated with that person. Every time the name is repeated, the brain responds by activating a process that creates a new representation of the person.

The brain initially holds each created representation in memory. The integration of these multiple representations requires effort that can disrupt the brain’s ongoing processing of what it hears during spoken conversation.

Pronouns, while faulty for their potential ambiguity, don’t cause the same disruptions in the brain that proper names do when used in the right context. In fact, they allow the brain to move easily from one thought or sentence to another. This seamless transition allows a person to digest more fully the meaning or intent of the thought being conveyed without the neural circuitry interference that proper names cause, said Almor.”

The paper published, in NeuroReport, is “What is in a name? Spatial brain circuits are used to track discourse references.”

10 thoughts on “The Influence of Pronouns in Brain Function

  1. “Pronouns…they allow the brain to move easily from one thought or sentence to another.”
    If so how? Surely pronouns represent, and are therefore associated with the original nouns. As placeholders they can only work if the association is clear.

  2. Mm… maybe that’s why my brain always feels like it might explode whenever I have to speak Chinese!

  3. Haha, nice one Dylan! Japanese is just as hard and I get a big headache trying to deal with all the pronouns and other grammar rules.

  4. Slower comprehension? What are we really talking here? A millisecond of delay? Nanosecond? Femtosecond? Seriously.

    Obviously languages like Japanese and Vietnamese are well known by linguists to lack “pronouns” in the European sense, and they use actual nouns instead. However Japanese doesn’t normally use pronouns in a sentence anyway, unlike clunky ol’ English that demands them all the time. So maybe this study is just a smokescreen to keep people from discovering that English-speakers are in fact the slow ones :P {Sniff, sniff} I smell bias.

  5. Bollocks. Most of the time my Japanese wife to me about me using my name, as she does all of her friends, and anyone else she knows. Pronouns are 90% of the time not used, usually being replaced by the person’s name, and I can not remember a single time when she used one.

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