In order to carry out research into a highly complex aspect of the link between the brain and language, such as the ambiguity of words, Canadian Blair Armstrong, researcher at the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language (BCBL), on a fellowship from the prestigious European Marie Curie Foundation, has put forward a new approach to the study of this field – a synthesis of psychology, neuroscience and computational science – what is known as “cognitive computational science”.
Scientists hope that in the future the advances made in this combination of disciplines will enable machines to communicate with humans in the same way as we do amongst ourselves. Amongst other applications, these studies signify a step forward in the creation of a semantic web in which search engines will be more capable of comprehending misunderstandings, double meanings, nuances and ironies, and in a natural manner as in communication between humans.
The aim of this field of study is also to find out the optimum manner of teaching the brain new skills, for example, in learning languages or in re-teaching basic skills subsequent to health problems such as a stroke.
According to Mr. Armstrong, “ambiguity can facilitate or hinder the comprehension of a message. The brain is very good and quick in processing the general meaning of a word, but it requires much more time to process its specific meaning. This is why ambiguous words such as “mark” (which can refer to a score or a stain) are initially easier to process than others which only have one interpretation”.
While ambiguity may be a positive factor for the human language, for computers, if what is involved is a general sense of a word, this ambiguity may turn out to be a highly complicated task. For example, if a very specific meaning of a word (for example, a “school” of fish) is involved and particularly with words that have very diverse meanings, people take longer in processing the message.
Given these and other contradictions arising from data from previous research on certain brain mechanisms, Mr. Armstrong and his colleagues at the BCBL have proposed a new model for studying the ambiguity of words, approaching the problem through focusing on complexity.
Given that previous theories had difficulties in providing explanations for this contradictory data that ambiguity can help or hinder the reader’s comprehension, the new approach proposed by Armstrong, focused on how the brain processes information, makes sense of this very contradictory data.
The idea is that, at times, simple ways of describing a phenomenon do not provide a great deal on the way in which the brain really functions. This is why Mr. Armstrong’s team has constructed a theory sensitive to the way the brain computes information.
According to the BCBL researcher, “the combination of diverse disciplines enables explaining many of the complex and frequently contradictory effects observed during various experiments. For example, it helps to understand how and why the brain is able to process ambiguous words highly efficiently, given that this model explains how the brain gradually resolves ambiguity.”
This new model of study in many ways provides a unifying theory which helps to understand different processes in the brain, amongst them bilingualism and changes in language skills as one grows older.
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