Hearing Bad Grammar Causes Physical Distress, Study Reveals.

A recent study has revealed something many of us have long felt before; witnessing grammar errors can cause adverse physical reactions, including activating the part of our sympathetic nervous system responsible for triggering the fight or flight response.

Researchers at the University of Birmingham have discovered a clear connection between bad grammar and heart rate variability (HRV). HRV tracks changes in the time intervals between heartbeats. These changes are managed by the basic autonomic nervous system (ANS), which handles tasks like controlling heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion.

When a person is relaxed, the intervals between heartbeats tend to vary, but they become more consistent when exposed to stressful situations. In this study, stressors included grammatical errors such as incorrect tense, sentence structure, singular-plural mix-ups, double negatives, and misplaced commas.

“These findings shed light on a new aspect of the complex connection between our body’s functions and our thinking processes,” explained Dagmar Divjak, Professorial Research Fellow in Cognitive Linguistics and Language Cognition at the University of Birmingham. “While previous research has explored this relationship using methods like eye-tracking, electroencephalography, and brain imaging, the link between language understanding and the autonomic nervous system (ANS) has received less attention until now.”

The study involved 41 healthy British adults, aged 18 to 44, who were proficient in English and had no learning disabilities or heart issues. They were presented with 40 written passages, which were read aloud by four different speakers, resulting in 160 speech samples. The passages varied in length and contained different types of errors. Throughout the exercise, their cardiovascular activity and blood volume pulse (BVP) signal were continuously monitored. Additionally, participants provided feedback on the samples through surveys after the study.

Here’s an example of a passage with errors (read it at your own risk):

“I think that culture is one of the areas most affected by a globalisation and it’s hard to say whether it is the positive or negative impact. I think that thanks to a globalisation, people all around the world listen to same music, watch the same movies, and read same books. They can discuss the same issues with each other, and understand each other better, because they know what they are talking about.”

As expected, the findings demonstrated a notable connection between sentences containing errors and a decrease in HRV.

“The ANS comprises two parts: the sympathetic (SNS) and the parasympathetic (PNS) nervous system,” said Divjak. “Simply put, the sympathetic nervous system activates the ‘fight or flight’ response during a threat or perceived danger, while the parasympathetic nervous system controls the ‘rest and digest’ or ‘feed and breed’ functions of the body. Our findings show that this system, too, responds to cognitive demands, and this suggests that cognitive effort reverberates through the physiological system in more ways than previously thought.”

The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is also monitored during lie-detector tests, which assess the physiological reactions that may occur when individuals are questioned about hidden information.

“Departures from linguistic normality trigger a clear cardiovascular reaction, and thereby reveal linguistic knowledge on the part of the individual without the need for explicit articulation,” the researchers noted in the study. “This observation brings into focus a new dimension of the intricate relationship between physiology and cognition, suggesting that cognitive effort reverberates through the physiological system in more ways than previously thought.”

The study was published in the Journal of Neurolinguistics.

Source: University of Birmingham

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