All three topics discussed in this post are still in research limbo because your brain is magic. I’ll describe three phenomena that affect everything from language acquisition to a guy who accidentally discovered that you can clearly hear The Bee Gees’ voices in a song that has no lyrics. I would actually love to hear some theories on that last one.
Okay, the words here aren’t missing, but they are all mixed up until your brain reshuffles them. You have a special ability called typoglycemia, which means that you can read misspelled words with little difficulty, as long as they follow a few rules. You may have seen a paragraph that went viral in 2003, which was so popular with everyone from children to scholars that the version I found is watermarked by Villanova School of Business:The author of this paragraph is noting something that is clearly true, which is proven with the delightful simplicity of all neurotypical English speakers being able to read it and forward it to their grandkids. However, some things got lost in translation. For instance, the rule about the first and last letter isn’t applicable, at least not across the board. The Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit of the actual Cambridge University, released a great article on the psycholinguistics behind the phenomenon, using this meme as a framework for breaking it down. The author, Matt Davis, and his colleagues propose the following rules for when your brain can un-jumble words (edited for brevity):
1) Short words are easy – 2 or 3 letter words don’t change at all, and 4 only has one option for changing letters inside the first and last letter.
2) Function words (the, be, and, you etc.) stay the same – mostly because they are short words, see (1). This really helps the reader by preserving the grammatical structure of the original, giving grammatical context.
3) Of the 15 words in one of the sentences, there are 8 that are still in the correct order. However, as a reader you might not notice this since many of the words that remain intact are function words, which readers don’t tend to notice when reading.
4) Transpositions of adjacent letters (e.g. porbelm for problem) are easier to read than more distant transpositions (e.g. pborlem).
This explains why word jumbles are still difficult: if the original statement was completely accurate, a lot of word games would be redundantly easy. While the details of the original meme are a bit oversimplified (I mean, it is a meme), the amazing thing is that it’s essentially correct: our brain wants to process the information we observe and has come up with methods of fitting stimuli to an expected pattern. This can be a double-edged sword, though, like when you’re trying to proofread a college essay and keep missing typos because your brain fixed them for you.
The phonological loop is all but proven, yet few scientists agree on exactly what it is. It’s categorized as a type of working memory and is broken down into two parts. One part is something you are probably familiar with: a girl just gave you her phone number but you don’t have a pen, so you chant the numbers over and over again (even if it’s just in your head, your brain acts as if it’s hearing you say it). This helps keep the memory fresh so you can write it down when you get a pen.
That’s called the articulatory process, which actively works to keep the memory. It is more difficult with random numbers like in the example above, and if you’re asked to remember nonsense words or phrases, but we do it all the time while we’re watching a TV show we like and we need to remember what happens in order to understand the next scene or episode.
The other part of the phonological loop is something you’ve definitely experienced but have probably never really thought about. You’re daydreaming in class when the teacher calls on you. You panic, but luckily, she had only just asked the question right before calling your name, so right as you start saying, “Uhhh, I didn’t-” your phonological loop kicks in and echoes the question from just a few seconds ago. Now you’re all set, as long as you know the answer.
You grabbed that question out of your super-short term phonological store. It is widely believed that absolutely every piece of phonological information that you hear, whether you pay attention to it or not, goes through the phonological store. It happens every time you ask someone to repeat what they just said, only to go, “Oh sorry yeah, no, I didn’t take that class,” or when someone asks you what made a noise that you weren’t paying attention to and you respond with the correct answer.
If you decide it’s important information, the auditory process kicks in to help you remember it. Sounds are only stored for a few seconds, though, if they aren’t moved into a different section of your memory. Some newer studies have explored the relationship between this process and language acquisition, particularly with second languages. A dysfunctional phonological store is one of the symptoms of aphasia, which I wrote about here with videos showing the effect of not being able to store phonological information.
I made that up. Pareidolia itself is a very real, well-researched phenomenon where a person sees or hears a pattern that isn’t there. This might sound familiar from the description of typoglycemia, and that’s not a coincidence: this is yet another example of your brain shmooshing stimuli together and trying its damnedest to make sense of it.
The most famous example of pareidolia is probably the man in the moon, but I’m sure you can think of a time when you swore you heard a voice over the air conditioner. In reality, your brain shmooshed some of the sounds from the air conditioner into stimuli that it then recognized as similar to indistinct voices in the distance, with the sole purpose of making you sound like a crazy person.
However, hearing actual, distinct words in instrumental music is something that I have not been able to find any research on. I stumbled across a viral video of someone who, in turn, stumbled across this fascinating discovery:
When I researched it further, I found little related to the idea of hearing words that were intentionally being replicated by an instrument with no manipulation. I did find a German experiment where they program a machine to play a piano that, for some reason, speaks English:
If you can suffer through the subtitles, it does a decent job of explaining how instrumental sounds can present as human speech, but I’m still fascinated as to how the brain processes it in such an unexpectedly clear way. Any and all theories are welcome!