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“I predict your words”: that is how we understand what others say to us

14 October 2019
The new SISSA study has just been published in eNeuro

We are at a fun but noisy party: how can we understand the words someone is saying to us despite the background music and voices? Thanks to the hard work of our brain and a special trick, it is capable of using: “predicting” the words that are said. Based on the first sounds that arrive to it directly, the brain makes a prediction, “suggesting” a solution. To say so is a new study by SISSA, in association with the Universities of Liverpool and Cambridge, just published in the journal eNeuro.

Thanks to an elegant series of experiments which involved the analysis of the electroencephalogram of a group of volunteers listening to precise groups of syllables, the study has shown how our auditory system, and the brain in particular, has a phenomenal ability to help us listen and understand in complicated, uncertain and noisy situations. Far from being a simple processor of stimuli, our brain seems to have a decisively proactive role, anticipating the possible word, and detecting readily any error in the prediction. The study is a further step in supporting a central idea in the cognitive neurosciences of recent decades that sees the brain as a proper “predictive machine”.