The link between pain and champagne is all too clear on January 1, but we might make the connection every time we hear the word “champagne” out loud—not (just) because champagne causes more severe hangovers than most drinks, but because a homophone for “pain” is embedded in it. In a paper published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience in 2010, Petra van Alphen of the University of Amsterdam and Jos van Berkum of the Netherlands’ Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior looked at whether people listening to spoken sentences register the meaning of unrelated but phonetically equivalent short words embedded in longer words—for example, “pie” in “pirate” or “pain” in “champagne.” They hypothesized that the effect would be stronger for initial-embedded words like “pirate”:
A word embedded at the offset of a longer word (such as pain in champagne) is in a less favorable position, because the initial part of the carrier word already supports the lexical representation of that longer word before the embedding comes along.
Van Alphen and van Berkum rounded up 40 students from the University of Amsterdam and had them listen to a series of unrelated sentences that included words with embedded “spurious words.” (Not difficult to come up with: According to one count, 84 percent of multi-syllabic English words have shorter words embedded within them.) The students were asked to listen attentively and try to imagine the situation described in the sentence while the researchers moderated their brain activity.
Van Alphen and van Berkum deduced whether the listeners were registering the meaning of the short words by using the measure of “N400,” which is a component of EEG, a device that allows neurologists to track electrical activity in the brain.
N400 has been shown to reflect the ease with which the brain retrieves the meaning of a word and relates it to a preceding context: The more trouble the brain has relating the meaning of a word to the context, the larger the N400. The logic of the experiment, then, was:
If listeners try to relate the meaning of the embedded words (e.g., pain) to the context, the N400 should be reduced in the context that initially supports the meaning of the embedding. In contrast, if listeners ignore the presence of the embedding, for example, because lexical activation of the embedded word is too weak or too short-lived…both conditions should elicit similar N400 components.
In the experiment, carrier words with an initial or final embedding were presented in sentences in which the meaning of the embedding was either supported by the preceding sentence frame or not.
A “context-supporting” sentence might be:
“While Clare was waiting at the bakery she eagerly looked at the pirate on the film poster.”
“The patient asked the nurse when the champagne would be cold enough to be served.”
Whereas a sentence that didn’t support the carrier word might be something like:
“While Clare was waiting at the pharmacy she eagerly looked at the pirate on the film poster.”
“The tourist asked the driver when the champagne would be cold enough to be served.”
When Van Alphen and van Berkum analyzed their results, they were in for a surprise: For both the initial embeddings (“pirate”) and the final embeddings (“champagne”), the listeners seemed to consider—at least briefly—the meaning of the embedded word:
The N400 component elicited by the carrier words in the context supporting the embedding showed a consistent dip in comparison to the N400 elicited by the same words presented in sentences not supporting the embedding.