If you think you know what you just said, think again. People can be tricked into believing they have just said something they did not, researchers report this week.
The dominant model of how speech works is that it is planned in advance — speakers begin with a conscious idea of exactly what they are going to say. But some researchers think that speech is not entirely planned, and that people know what they are saying in part through hearing themselves speak.
So cognitive scientist Andreas Lind and his colleagues at Lund University in Sweden wanted to see what would happen if someone said one word, but heard themselves saying another. “If we use auditory feedback to compare what we say with a well-specified intention, then any mismatch should be quickly detected,” he says. “But if the feedback is instead a powerful factor in a dynamic, interpretative process, then the manipulation could go undetected.”
This actually doesn’t surprise me too much. In normal everyday life, most of us have had the experience of hearing ourselves say something surprising, perhaps something we wished we hadn’t said. It’s not much of a leap to believe we said what we hear, even if someone has switched it on us.
I’ve noticed that I rarely have my words consciously planned out in the seconds before I speak, at least in most casual conversations. It’s like I’m thinking out loud. I don’t think I’m unusual in this regard.
Many people have speculated that consciousness actually depends on language. That without language, we can’t have higher order thinking. I don’t believe that, but I do think language likely changes our thoughts in a substantial manner, adding a structure that maybe wouldn’t exist without it. We tend to think in our native language and I’ve heard that people who were raised bilingual tend to think differently from those of us raised in only one language.
Similar to the split-brain patient experiments, this is another aspect of the fact that we are not one unitary whole, but a collection of processes and modules that work together, not always through communication within the brain, but sometimes through what we hear ourselves say, or what we see ourselves do. And that consciousness is more often an after the fact model of what happened, rather than a controller.