Bad grammar cause real physical stress, study finds
A new study has shown, for the first time, what many of us have long felt: that observing grammar mistakes can trigger negative physical reactions, including one that stems from the part of our sympathetic nervous system that initiates the fight or flight response.
Linguistics researchers at the University of Birmingham have found a direct link between poor grammar and heart rate variability (HRV), which measures the variation in time periods (intervals) between heartbeats. This variation is controlled by the primitive autonomic nervous system (ANS), which is hard at work regulating heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and digestion, among other important functions.
The interval length trends toward variable when a person is relaxed, and becomes more regular when subjected to stressful stimuli. In this study, the stressful stimuli included bad tense, poor sentence structure, mixing up singular and plural, double negatives, and errant commas.
“The results of this study bring into focus a new dimension of the intricate relationship between physiology and cognition,” said Dagmar Divjak, Professorial Research Fellow in Cognitive Linguistics and Language Cognition at the University of Birmingham. “This relationship has been studied using techniques ranging from eye-tracking over electro-encephalography to brain imaging. But the relation between language cognition and the autonomic nervous system (ANS) has so far received less attention.”
For the study, the researchers recruited 41 healthy British (English-speaking) adults aged 18 to 44 years, with no learning difficulties or heart irregularities. They were exposed to 40 written samples delivered as 160 speech samples by four different speakers. The length of the samples varied, as did the errors contained in them. During this exercise, their cardiovascular activity was tracked continuously, as was their blood volume pulse (BVP) signal. The participants also filled out surveys rating the samples afterwards.
As for an example of some of the error-ridden work? Read on, 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 results revealed a significant correlation between sentences that contained errors and a reduction 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 ANS is also observed during lie-detector tests, which measure the physiological responses that can result from being asked about concealed 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