advertisement
05 November 2010

Mind uses syntax to interpret actions

Most people are familiar with the concept that sentences have syntax. A verb, a subject, and an object come together in predictable patterns.

0

Most people are familiar with the concept that sentences have syntax. A verb, a subject, and an object come together in predictable patterns. But actions have syntax, too; when we watch someone else do something, we assemble their actions to mean something, according to a new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

"There are oceans and oceans of work on how we understand languages and how we interpret the things other people say," says Matthew Botvinick of Princeton University, who cowrote the paper with his colleagues Kachina Allen, Steven Ibara, Amy Seymour, and Natalia Cordova.

They thought the same principle might be applied to understanding actions. For example, if you see someone buy a ticket, give it to the attendant, and ride on the carousel, you understand that exchanging money for a piece of paper gave him the right to get on the round thing and go around in circles.

Botvinick and his colleagues focused on action sequences that followed two contrasting kinds of syntax — a linear syntax, in which action A (buying a ticket) leads to action B (giving the ticket to the attendant), which leads to outcome C (riding the carousel), and another syntax in which actions A and B both independently lead to outcome C. They were testing whether the difference in structure affected the way that people read about the actions.

How the experiments were done 

The experiments were based on studies suggesting that people read a sentence faster if it comes after a sentence with the same grammatical form. But in this case, the scientists varied relationships between actions rather than the order of parts of speech.

In one experiment, volunteers read sentences that described three actions. They took one of two forms: either one action leads to the next action, which leads to the outcome, such as "John purchased a carousel ticket, gave it to the attendant, and went for a ride," or sentences like "John sliced up some tomatoes, rinsed off some lettuce, and tossed together a salad"—in which both of the first two actions lead to the result, without the second depending on the first.

Sequence of actions

Indeed, people were able to read a sentence more quickly if it followed a set of actions arranged the same way than if it followed a sentence of the other type. This indicates that readers' minds had some kind of abstract representation of the ways goals and actions relate, says Botvinick.

"It's the underlying knowledge structure that kind of glues actions together. Otherwise, you could watch somebody do something and say it's just a random sequence of actions."

In the carousel example, a Martian might not understand why John exchanges paper for another piece of paper, why he gives the paper to the other man, why he goes around and around in circles, and what relationship there is between these actions.

As humans, we've worked all of those things out, and Botvinick thinks he's a step closer to understanding the process. (EurekAlert/November 2010)

Read more:
Body mirrors the mind
Keep your brain fit

Complete our Health of the Nation Survey and stand a chance to win a scooter!

 
NEXT ON HEALTH24X

More:

BrainNews
advertisement

Read Health24’s Comments Policy

Comment on this story
0 comments
Comments have been closed for this article.

Live healthier

Dangerous winter sun »

Why female students ignore the risks of indoor tanning Can rooibos protect you from the effects of UVB exposure?

Skin cancer always a risk – even in winter

During winter, the risk of skin cancer doesn’t disappear. CyberDoc talks to us about when to see your doctor about a strange-looking mole or spot.

Did you know? »

The 5 saltiest foods may surprise you Craving salt? Your genes may be the reason

10 fascinating facts about salt

The one thing that fast foods, whether it be chips, hamburgers, pretzels or fried chicken have in common, is loads of salt.