First think, then talk?

Why our brain sometimes can not keep up with speech planning

We plan our statements in different ways © MPG / F1 online
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If we speak before we finish, it can lead to embarrassing slips of the tongue. But why? One reason for this: Our brain has not already formulated the sentence when we get started. Instead, speech planning takes place mostly during speech, as researchers from Nijmegen have noted. And the more complex the content, the further the planning depends on.

"Think first, then talk!" We usually hear this well-intentioned advice when we have already stepped into a faux pas or have divulged a carefully guarded secret. It is not surprising that it has long been known that spokespeople seldom think carefully about what they want to say in advance. Instead, they usually just plan the beginning of an utterance, start talking, and keep planning as they pronounce the beginning of the sentence.

This works because choosing the right words and their arrangement in the sentence is faster than the pronunciation itself. For example, it takes at least 1.5 seconds to pronounce the words "The little girl ...". This gives you plenty of time to plan the next part of the sentence, such as "push the boy". If the planning time during the pronunciation of a phrase is not enough, we take a short break in the sentence or say "er" to gain time.

Actor or entire scene?

But exactly how the conversation is going is still unclear - and also why sometimes it does not work and we produce embarrassing slip of the tongue, such as saying "I am so glad that you have left!" Instead of "come". There are several hypotheses: Either we only set a very rough concept and perhaps plan the first word. For example, if we want to describe a picture in which a girl pushes a boy on a sled, then we only consider the girl as the doer, the rest will come later.

A pilot participant with an eye movement camera © MPI for Psycholinguistics

Another possibility: we capture the entire scene with their action contexts and thus have the pattern of events already roughly in the head. A third possibility would be that speakers do not consistently apply either one or the other strategy, but that their speech planning depends on the difficulty of the task. Antje Meyer from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen and her colleagues have examined in an experiment which of these hypotheses applies. display

If it gets more complex, the brain lags behind

In the experiment, the subjects should describe scenes that they saw on a monitor. "We record the changes and determine when the subjects begin to speak and when they pronounce each other word, " explains Meyer. During the experiment, the subjects wear an eye-tracking camera that can be used to determine exactly when and for how long they will see the actor and the passive partner in the picture. From this data, the researchers can deduce which strategy the study participants use in their speech planning.

The result: If the scenes shown were simple, the second strategy came into play: The subjects first got a survey and then started. On the other hand, if the plot was harder to describe, the subjects were limited to the doer and began to speak directly. The phase of the general overview was omitted because it can not be grasped all at once in more complex contexts. Therefore, we capture the rest later, while we are already speaking.

"This shows that we are not rigidly using a planning strategy, but are planning differently depending on the situation", says Meyer. Accordingly, we unconsciously plan our statements in different ways and think differently far in advance. This helps us express ourselves quickly and appropriately - but it can also produce mistakes if planning does not follow suit.

(Max Planck Society, 25.02.2014 - NPO / MVI)