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Visual Cues Change What We Hear

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Effective communication relies on body language, eye contact, and proper pronunciation—but do hand gestures help make a point or distract?  A recent study finds that using hand gestures influences what meanings people hear and can cause a wide variety of personal interpretations based on when the gestures are used.

                A team of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics investigated the timing of hand gestures and how it directly affected what words the brain hears.  They tested a group of words in Dutch that sound exactly the same but have different meanings depending on where the emphasis is placed on certain syllables of the words.  Participants were asked to watch a video of a speaker using what is referred to as “beat gestures,” or rhythmic gestures based on parts of the word that the speaker wants to emphasize.

                For some of the words, the gestures weren’t used in tandem with the speaker’s words and were random.  The participants were then asked to report which word they heard to test if the gestures emphasized the stressed syllables that attributed the different meanings to the words in Dutch.

                As expected, the participants reported hearing a syllable stressed more if it corresponded to a beat gesture regardless if the word was meant to be stressed on that portion.  In this instance, it completely changed the meaning of the word that the speaker was intending to communicate.

                Using body language techniques can definitely make an impact on the listener, and this intriguing study finds that we are easily influenced by what our eyes see even if our ears are actually hearing a different sound.  Knowing this will hopefully encourage more of us to remember that it’s easy to have information lost in translation and that each person experiences a unique perspective. 


Bosker Hans Rutger, Peeters David. 2021. Beat gestures influence which speech sounds you hear. Proc. R. Soc. B.28820202419. http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2020.2419


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