What happens in our brain when we read in the presence of others? Is your activity the same as when we read alone? Apparently there are differences. Researchers from the Complutense University of Madrid and the Carlos III Health Institute have shown that the company favors a more creative and inclusive understanding of language, while isolation encourages more systematic and automatic processing. The results are published in Cortex.

To test the effect of company and loneliness on language understanding, the scientists analyzed the brain activity of the participants using an electroencephalogram. The subjects had to read sentences that contained syntactic or semantic errors, half the time alone and the other half in the presence of someone. When they were accompanied, activity increased in the precuneus (brain area involved in social and attentional processing). Furthermore, language comprehension was more comprehensive and inclusive compared to reading alone.

The electrical activity of the brain reveals that language processing is more heuristic, that is, more global, controlled, integrative and possibly more creative if we read in company, the researchers indicate. It also suggests that the effects are possibly related to social and attentional cognitive factors. “On the other hand, when we read alone, language processing is more algorithmic, that is, more automatic, restricted and subject to rules,” explains Laura Jiménez Ortega, one of the authors in a press release.

These results show that to understand the understanding of language, the impact of social factors inherent to the most natural and fundamental communicative scenarios must be taken into account. “It is necessary to begin to consider the social keys both in research and in educational and professional environments where the understanding of language plays a fundamental role, since, it seems, the company favors a more creative and inclusive understanding, and isolation, a more detailed and systematic processing, ”concludes Jiménez Ortega.

Reference: «Language comprehension in the social brain: Electrophysiological brain signals of social presence effects during syntactic and semantic sentence processing». Hinchcliffe, C. et al. in Cortex, vol. 130, pp. 413-425, September 2020.