Research shows that our brains can easily be tricked depending on how a sentence is structured
You might believe that you’re an attentive listener – you wouldn’t dream of thinking about what to cook for dinner while listening to someone talking – but in reality none of us is as good at listening as we think we are. A study from the University of Glasgow shows that our brains commonly use shallow or incomplete processing to understand spoken or written information. The brain’s version of skim-reading, so to speak. Rather than understanding and absorbing every word spoken or written, the brain puts together a picture based on some, but not all, of the words which often leads to misunderstanding.
Some sentences feature semantic illusions – they are often misunderstood because of the way they are worded. For example, researchers found that around half of people misread the following sentence:
After a plane crash, where should the survivors be buried?
If you’re thinking that the survivors should be buried anywhere they choose since they’re still alive, then you’ve done well. One in two people will assume the ‘survivors’ are dead – purely because of the way the sentence is put together. Similarly, when asked, “Can a man marry his widow’s sister?” most people will answer yes. Yet it’s impossible for man to marry his widow’s sister, since if he has a widow he must be dead.
According to the study authors, there are ways to make sure the message you get your message across clearly: in print, you can use bold or italic lettering to ensure that certain words are absorbed by the reader. If speaking, it’s best to put important information first – unusual words are less likely to be understood or absorbed properly if they’re towards the end of a sentence.