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Icon for: Erika Hussey


University of Maryland at College Park
Finalist Community Choice Winner


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How Exercising (Your Brain) Improves Language Use

A striking property of the human mind is its ability to interpret speech and text in real-time. Findings from language processing studies suggest that individuals rapidly assign provisional analyses to what they read or hear, as they perceive new words and phrases moment-by-moment. Incremental language processing is certainly efficient; it obviates the need to hold complete sentences in memory before assigning meaning. However, there is a cost: one must deal with temporary ambiguity, as early interpretations sometimes become incorrect when fresh input suggests new meaning. In such cases, readers and listeners experience temporary processing difficulty and misanalysis. Cognitive control—the ability to regulate thought and behavior despite conflicting evidence—helps countermand initial processing decisions and recover correct alternatives. Research suggests that cognitive-control abilities are malleable by training on executive function (EF) tasks; EF-training improves practiced and unpracticed tasks that rely on common mechanisms.

A 20-hour, five-week EF-boosting regimen was designed. Healthy adults were assigned to an EF-training or no-contact group and completed several pre/post assessments, including reading ambiguous sentences while eye-movements were recorded and answering comprehension questions gauging misinterpretation. At posttest, only trainees exhibited improvements in reinterpretation abilities, measured by better comprehension accuracy and eye-movements indexing real-time revision. I ascribe improved sentence reinterpretation abilities to domain-general benefits of EF-training.

Elucidating how changes in cognitive control affect language use has widespread implications, including understanding how to treat patients with cognitive impairments affecting language skills, informing ways of accelerating second-language learning, and determining how to offset EF-depleting conditions, like cognitive-fatigue and performance-pressure.