How language changes the way you hear music

In a new paper I, together with Roel Willems and Peter Hagoort, show that music and language are tightly coupled in the brain. Get the gist in a 180 second youtube clip and then try out what my participants did.

The task my participants had to do might sound very abstract to you, so let me make it concrete. Listen to these two music pieces and tell me which one sounds ‘finished’:

I bet you thought the second one ended a bit in an odd way. How do you know? You use your implicit knowledge of harmonic relations in Western music for such a ‘finished judgement’. All we did in the paper was to see whether an aspect of language grammar (syntax) can influence your ability to hear these harmonic relations, as revealed by ‘finished judgements’. The music pieces we used for this sounded very similar to what you just heard:

It turns out that reading syntactically difficult sentences while hearing the music reduced the feeling that music pieces like this did actually end well. This indicated that processing language syntax draws on brain resources which are also responsible for music harmony.

Difficult syntax: The surgeon consoled the man and the woman put her hand on his forehead.

Easy syntax: The surgeon consoled the man and the woman because the operation had not been successful.

Curiously, sentences with a difficult meaning had no influence on the ‘finished judgements’.

Difficult meaning: The programmer let his mouse run around on the table after he had fed it.

Easy meaning: The programmer let his field mouse run around on the table after he had fed it.

Because only language syntax influenced ‘finished judgements’, we believe that music and language share a common syntax processor of some kind. This conclusion is in line with a number of other studies which I blogged about before.

What this paper adds is that we rule out an attentional link between music and language as the source of the effect. In other words, difficult syntax doesn’t simply distract you and thereby disables your music hearing. Its influence is based on a common syntax processor instead.

In the end, I tested 278 participants across 3 pre-tests, 2 experiments, and 1 post-test. Judge for yourself whether it was worth it by reading the freely available paper here.

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Kunert R, & Slevc LR (2015). A Commentary on: “Neural overlap in processing music and speech”. Frontiers in human neuroscience, 9 PMID: 26089792

Kunert, R., Willems, R., & Hagoort, P. (2016). Language influences music harmony perception: effects of shared syntactic integration resources beyond attention Royal Society Open Science, 3 (2) DOI: 10.1098/rsos.150685

Do music and language share brain resources?

When you listen to some music and when you read a book, does your brain use the same resources? This question goes to the heart of how the brain is organised – does it make a difference between cognitive domains like music and language? In a new commentary I highlight a successful approach which helps to answer this question.

On some isolated island in academia, the tree of knowledge has the form of a brain.

How do we read? What is the brain doing in this picture?

When reading the following sentence, check carefully when you are surprised at what you are reading:

After | the trial | the attorney | advised | the defendant | was | likely | to commit | more crimes.

I bet it was on the segment was. You probably thought that the defendant was advised, rather than that someone else was advised about the defendant. Once you read the word was you need to reinterpret what you have just read. In 2009 Bob Slevc and colleagues found out that background music can change your reading of this kind of sentences. If you hear a chord which is harmonically unexpected, you have even more trouble with the reinterpretation of the sentence on reading was.

Why does music influence language?

Why would an unexpected chord be problematic for reading surprising sentences? The most straight-forward explanation is that unexpected chords are odd. So they draw your attention. To test this simple explanation, Slevc tried out an unexpected instrument playing the chord in a harmonically expected way. No effect on reading. Apparently, not just any odd chord changes your reading. The musical oddity has to stem from the harmony of the chord. Why this is the case, is a matter of debate between scientists. What this experiment makes clear though, is that music can influence language via shared resources which have something to do with harmony processing.

Why ignore the fact that music influences language?

None of this was mention in a recent review by Isabelle Peretz and colleagues on this topic. They looked at where in the brain music and language show activations, as revealed in MRI brain scanners. This is just one way to find out whether music and language share brain resources. They concluded that ‘the question of overlap between music and speech processing must still be considered as an open question’. Peretz call for ‘converging evidence from several methodologies’ but fail to mention the evidence from non-MRI methodologies.1

Sure one has to focus on something, but it annoys me that people tend focus on methods (especially fancy expensive methods like MRI scanners), rather than answers (especially answers from elegant but cheap research into human behaviour like reading). So I decided to write a commentary together with Bob Slevc. We list no less than ten studies which used a similar approach to the one outlined above. Why ignore these results?

If only Peretz and colleagues had truly looked at ‘converging evidence from several methodologies’. They would have asked themselves why music sometimes influences language and why it sometimes does not. The debate is in full swing and already beyond the previous question of whether music and language share brain resources. Instead, researchers ask what kind of resources are shared.

So, yes, music and language appear to share some brain resources. Perhaps this is not easily visible in MRI brain scanners. Looking at how people read with chord sequences played in the background is how one can show this.

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Kunert, R., & Slevc, L.R. (2015). A commentary on “Neural overlap in processing music and speech” (Peretz et al., 2015) Frontiers in Human Neuroscience : doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2015.00330

Peretz I, Vuvan D, Lagrois MÉ, & Armony JL (2015). Neural overlap in processing music and speech. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 370 (1664) PMID: 25646513

Slevc LR, Rosenberg JC, & Patel AD (2009). Making psycholinguistics musical: self-paced reading time evidence for shared processing of linguistic and musical syntax. Psychonomic bulletin & review, 16 (2), 374-81 PMID: 19293110
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1 Except for one ECoG study.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this blog post are not necessarily shared by Bob Slevc.

Is it safe to talk while driving? – Partly depends on what you talk about.

World Health Organization reports about road safety are mind boggling: about 1.2 million people die on the world’s roads every year. For people of my age (15 to 29 year olds) it is the leading cause of death.

A rather recent addition to laws designed to reduce these numbers was the adoption of compulsory hands-free devices for mobile phones. Their safety value is easy to understand. When you look at a mobile phone display you cannot simultaneously look at the road. Similarly, using your hands for typing and using them for steering are at least partly incompatible actions.
mobile phone use while driving

How mobile phone use impairs sight and hands.

From a psychological point of view the current law tries to ensure that visual input channels (eyes) and motor output channels (hands) remain undisturbed. But what about the brain areas which control these channels?
This is the question recently investigated by Bergen from UC San Diego and colleagues. They put undergraduates in a driving simulator giving the impression of a motorway with steady traffic and a car in front of the driver breaking from time to time. Simultaneously, the driver had to judge simple true/false statements from the motor domain (e.g., “To open a jar, you turn the lid counterclockwise.”), the visual domain (e.g., “The letters on a stop sign are white.”), or the abstract domain (e.g., “The capital of North Dakota is Bismarck.”). As a baseline condition, people were just asked to say “true” or “false” several times.
Why choose such questions? There is both behavioural and brain-imaging evidence that language comprehension involves the simulation of what was said. This set of findings is often summarised as embodied cognition and its take-home message is something like this: in order to understand it, you mentally do it. For example, to answer a motor question, you use your brain areas doing motor control and make them simulate what it would be like to open a jar. Based on the outcome of this simulation you answer the question.
So, will visual or motor questions affect driving differently than abstract questions because the former engage the same brain areas as those needed for driving while the latter don’t? The alternative would be that asking anything distracts because general attention gets pulled away from driving.
The results go both ways. First, one measure was affected by the true/false statements but not by which kinds: quickly breaking when the car in front breaks. The time it took to do so was longer if any sort of question was asked compared to baseline. This suggests that domain general mechanisms were interfered with through language, e.g., attention.
Liza minelli driving

Was she a safe driver? May depend on whether she talked and if so about what.

Second, one measure was affected by what kind of statements had to be judged:generally holding a safe distance to other cars. This distance was greater if visual questions were asked compared to abstract questions and compared to baseline. A similar, albeit not as clear, pattern emerged for motor questions. It looks as if participants were so distracted by these kinds of questions that they fell behind their optimal driving distance. This suggests that a task such as keeping a safe driving distance which requires visual working memory (compare ideal distance to actual distance) and corrective motor responses (bring ideal and actual distances closer together) is influenced by language comprehension through mental simulation.
On the one hand, the scientific implications are quite straight forward. Bergen and colleague’s results suggest that those low level perception and action control areas which are needed for quick reactions are not what embodied cognition is about. Instead it seems like embodied cognition happens in higher perceptual and motor planning areas. Furthermore, the whole embodied cognition idea gets quite a boost from a conceptual replication under relatively realistic conditions.
On the other hand, the practical implications are somewhat controversial. Because talking in general impairs quick reactions by the driver, even hands-free devices pose a risk. This danger is compounded by talking about abstract topics since the driving distance is reduced compared to visual topics.
The authors refrain from saying that any sort of conversation should be prohibited. Passengers share perceptual experiences with the driver and can adjust their conversations to the dangerousness of the situation. Mobile phone contacts can’t do this. But what if you want to be really really safe? Well, cut your own risk of dying and take public transport. There you can chat and cut your death risk by 90% (bus) or even 95% (train or flight) compared to car travel (EU numbers).
London bus

A safe way to travel.


Bergen, B., Medeiros-Ward, N., Wheeler, K., Drews, F., & Strayer, D. (2012). The Crosstalk Hypothesis: Why Language Interferes With Driving. Journal of experimental psychology. General PMID: 22612769



1) By Ed Brown as Edbrown05 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

2) By Alan Light (Flickr) [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

3) By Original author was User:Kameragrl at Wikitravel Shared, transferred to Commons by User:Oxyman ( [CC-BY-SA-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

How your Name Influences your Life

What’s the point in name change? – Life change?

Names are words.


This may be a completely obvious statement if it wasn’t for what it entails. First of all, words have to be pronounced. Secondly, words carry meaning. Both properties change how words are used. A bunch of studies has recently shown that these properties also influence how the people behind names are perceived. In essence, names open up the door for biases, misperceptions and prejudices.


Be careful, if your name happens to be Mohammed Vougiouklakis you may not like what you’re about to read.


Firstly, pronunciation is important. If a word is unpronounceable, it never enters a community’s language. Turns out people whose names are unpronounceable also have trouble in the community. Laham and colleagues (2012) asked Australian undergraduates to rate how good a fictional local council candidate was. Participants read a fake local news article which was always the same except for the surname of the candidate which was either difficult to pronounce (Vougiouklakis, Leszczynska) or easy (Lazaridis, Paradowska). Easy to pronounce candidates were rated better.
In another experiment, Laham and colleagues looked at the hierarchy within real US American law firms. Pronounceability was associated with the lawyer’s position in the firm’s hierarchy. This was found even just for the subset of names which were Anglo-American, likewise for the foreign name sample. So, the more easily pronounceable the name, the better your career prospects.
It is worth appreciating how weird this outcome is. People did not rate names but instead the people who carry the names. Furthermore, they had a wealth of information about them and one may think that name pronunciation is a very unimportant bit of information that is simply ignored. Nonetheless, even though it should be completely irrelevant for success name pronunciation appears to shape people’s lives.
Secondly, words have meaning. The most important meaning of a name is what it says about the community you are from. It signifies gender, ethnicity, race, region, etc. One widely known American study is Bertrand and Mullainathan’s (2004) job application study in which real job adverts were answered with fake resumes only differing in terms of name. Black sounding names (Lakisha Washington) received less call-backs than white sounding names (Emily Walsh). Furthermore, application quality was not important for black sounding names while it did change call-back rates for white sounding names.
If you are from Europe (like me) and you feel like racism is oh so American (somewhat like me before I wrote this post), bear in mind that the main finding has been replicated with local ethnic minority names in many European countries:

If he is called Tobias (rather than Fatih) he gets 14% more call-backs on applications.


Britain – Muhammed Kalid vs. Andrew Clarke (Wood et al., 2009)
France – Bakari Bongo vs. Julien Roche (Cediey and Foroni, 2008)
Germany – Fatih Yildiz vs. Tobias Hartmann (Kaas and Manger, 2011)
Greece – Nikolai Dridanski vs. Ioannis Christou (Drydakis and Vlassis, 2010)
Netherlands – Mohammed vs. Henk (Derous et al., 2012)
Ireland (McGinnity and Lunn, 2011)
Sweden – Ali Said vs. Erik Andersson (Carlsson and Rooth, 2007)


This is really just evidence for old fashioned discrimination in the job market. But it says more than that. In the American study, getting additional qualifications is worth it for whites while it did not have a significant impact on call-back rates for blacks. Thus, similarly to the pronunciation effect above, additional information does not reduce the effect of the obviously irrelevant name characteristics. Instead, in the case of Bertrand and Mullainathan’s study, additional information of application quality even exacerbated the race difference.
The take-home message is that people take in all sorts of objectively irrelevant information – like names – and use it to make their choices. These choices are more likely to go against you if your name is difficult to pronounce or foreign sounding. People make choices about names and these choices affect the people behind the names.
So, what is there to do? If you really want to treat people fairly, i.e. give people an equal chance independent of the names they were given or have chosen, give them a number. Because – and this will sound terribly obvious – numbers aren’t words.
Bertrand, M., & Mullainathan, S. (2004). Are Emily and Greg More Employable Than Lakisha and Jamal? A Field Experiment on Labor Market Discrimination. The American Economic Review, 94(4), 991-1025. doi: 10.1257/0002828042002561
Carlsson, M., & Rooth, D.-O. (2007). Evidence of ethnic discrimination in the Swedish labor market using experimental data. Labour Economics, 14, 716–729. doi: 10.1016/j.labeco.2007.05.001
Cediey, E., & Foroni, F. (2008). Discrimination in Access to Employment on Grounds of Foreign Origin in France. ILO International Migration Paper 85E, International Labour Organization, Geneva, Switzerland.
Derous, E., Ryan, A.M., Nguyen, H.-H. D. (2012). Multiple categorization in resume screening: Examining effects on hiring discrimination against Arab applicants in field and lab settings. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 33, 544-570. doi: 10.1002/job.769
Drydakis, N., & Vlassis, M. (2010). Ethnic discrimination in the greek labour market: occupational access, insurance coverage and wage offers. The Manchester School, 78(3), 201–218. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9957.2009.02132.x
Kaas, L., & Manger, C. (2011). Ethnic Discrimination in Germany’s Labour Market: A Field Experiment. German Economic Review 13(1): 1–20.
Laham, S.M., Koval, P., Alter, A.L. (2012). The name-pronunciation effect: Why people like Mr. Smith more than Mr. Colquhoun. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(3), 752-756. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2011.12.002
McGinnity, F., & Lunn, P.D. (2011). Measuring discrimination facing ethnic minority job applicants: an Irish experiment. Work Employment Society, 25(4), 693-708. doi: 10.1177/0950017011419722
Wood, M., Hales, J., Purdon, S., Sejersen, T., & Hayllar, O. (2009). A Test for Racial Discrimination in Recruitment Practice in British Cities. Department for Work and Pensions Research Report No. 607.

1) Muhammad Ali by Ira Rosenberg

2) as found in Kaas, L., & Manger, C. (2011). Ethnic Discrimination in Germany’s Labour Market: A Field Experiment. German Economic Review 13(1): 1–20.

Computer Gaming = Mental Training?

A mental trainer.

Computer gaming often gets a bad press. It gets linked to brutal murders (school shootings in Columbine, US  and Winnenden, Germany , the massacre on Utoya and in Oslo, Norway ), gang culture, physical decline and death, brain degeneration, and low productivity. Susan Greenfield, a neurophysiologist and something of a celebrity scientist in the UK, links them to aggression, recklessness, and a decline in prosocial behaviour. However, there is also a growing literature on cognitive benefits resulting from the mental training provided by ordinary computer games. How good is the evidence for these positive side effects of being hooked on a video game?
The start of the ‘computer gaming=mental training’ argument can be traced back to an article published in Nature in 2003. In it, Green and Bavelier claimed to have found evidence for bigger and better attentional resources in video game players compared to non-players. For example, in one task participants were asked to count squares briefly flashed on a screen. There are two ways to solve this task: subitizing, i.e. immediately ‘seeing’ the right number as after having rolled a die, and counting. Video game players could subitize more items than non-players. However, some may argue that perhaps only people with better attention get drawn to computer games in the first place. Green and Bavelier (2003) addressed this issue by training people for one hour a day over ten days on either Medal of Honor – an action game – or Tetris – a control game. Only the action game trained participants’ visual attention improved. The conclusion appears clear: forget about tedious, commercial brain trainers, play action games to boost your attention abilities.
However, has the effect stood the test of time? Last year Boot and colleagues reviewed the literature and reported that researchers found out that gamers are superior to non-gamers in terms of various mental faculties: mental rotation, visual acuity, decision making, etc. Studies finding a relation greatly outnumber those which don’t. Furthermore, training studies are rarer but generally also find positive associations between action game ‘training’ and many of the aforementioned cognitive abilities. It looks like it is time to write a letter to all the fear mongers who link action video gaming to all sorts of social problems … not so fast.

Would you notice the difference to a mental trainer?

Has the effect stood the test of science? Even though the aforementioned studies were published in reputable scientific journals and apparently stood the test of time Boot and colleagues (2011) are critical of the claims of the ‘computer gaming=mental training’ field. For starters, most studies compare gamers to non-gamers and with this approach you never know what caused what (e.g., people get trained by computer games, or superior people get drawn to computer games) or whether giving people the feeling of being an expert already enhances their performance.
The latter criticism also applies to training studies. In clinical trials of new medications, participants are not aware what condition they are in – whether they receive the real pill or the sugar pill. In game training studies, on the other hand, participants always know the game they are playing, obviously. Why would this be a problem? Tetris involves mental rotation but does not involve attentional demands. Medal of Honor in many ways is the reverse. If you were a participant and told to predict which training would benefit attentional abilities, what would you say? Just the expectation of improvement may drive the observed changes, i.e. a placebo effect. In sum, there currently isn’t very convincing evidence for the ‘computer gaming=mental training’ account.
Still, the accumulated evidence is at least suggestive of real cognitive improvements. So, instead of looking in fear at brain washed gaming geeks on the verge of violent outbursts, we should perhaps envy them for their superior mental abilities.
One moment. There is still the issue of those negative side effects. There, it turns out that a recent review by Hall and colleagues (2011) found the literature to be split between studies claiming a gaming-aggression link and those that do not. Even meta-analyses on this issue do not agree with each other. Furthermore, there are also substantial methodological issues in this field (Adachi and Willoughby, 2011).
My message to gamers: game on.
Adachi, P.J.C., & Willoughby, T. (2011). The effect of violent video games on aggression: Is it more than just the violence? Aggression and Violent Behaviour, 16, 55-62. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2010.12.002
Boot, W.R., Blakely, D.P., & Simons, D.J. (2011). Do action video games improve perception and cognition? Frontiers in Psychology, 2,1. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2011.00226
Green, C.S., & Bavelier, D. (2003). Action video game modifies visual selective attention. Nature, 423, 534-537. doi:10.1038/nature01647
Hall, R.C.W., Day, T., & Hall, R.C.W. (2011). A Plea for Caution: Violent Video Games, the Supreme Court, and the Role of Science. Mayo Clinical Proceedings, 86, 315-321. doi:10.4065.mcp.2010.0762

Mental Fitness – How to Improve your Mind through Bodily Exercise
We stood in the middle of the motorway, about to drive onto it in the wrong direction. The windscreen wipers worked madly even though the weather was very dry. One of the passengers screamed, I can’t remember whom.
A German family’s holidays in South Africa can be scary indeed.
What had happened? In psychological jargon, my mother – who drove – was overcome by pre-potent responses which were not inhibited by her executive control system. In other words, her German driving habits – drive down a motorway on the right hand side, indicate using a lever on the left of the steering wheel – were incompatible with the South African traffic system – drive on the left – and the car – the wind screen wipers are activated on the left, the indicator on the right. In order to drive in South Africa my mother needed to hold in mind the correct information about how to drive and at the same time had to stop herself falling back on her usual driving habits. Worse, she had to do so while sitting basically motionless.
A link between immobility and mental performance is suggested by a recent meta-analysis done by Chang and colleagues (just published in Brain Research). They pooled 79 studies with a total of over 2000 participants and overall found a very small positive effect of a small bout of exercise on cognitive performance.
If you would like slightly superior mental abilities, here is some self-help advice:
If you want to show off your slightly improved concentration during exercise:
– Exercise intensity: doesn’t matter too much.
– Cognitive improvements: executive control
Positive effects are only seen for tasks similar to my mother sitting in a foreign car on a foreign road, i.e. situations where you need to concentrate in order to perform differently to what you are used to or to what is usually obvious. Forget about higher intelligence or better memory while sweating it out.
– People: The better your overall fitness level the more positive the effect.
If you want to mentally perform slightly better just after exercising:
– Exercise intensity: light to intermediate
– Cognitive improvements: executive control, attention, intelligence
– People: unfit or very fit (not moderate)
If there is a small pause of at least a minute between physical exercise and cognitive performance:
– Exercise intensity: light or above (not very light)
– Cognitive improvements: executive control, factual knowledge
– People: any level of bodily fitness
How long should the exercises be to see positive effects?
At least 10 minutes.
For how long do the improvements last?
No more than 15 minutes.
How old are people who show cognitive improvements?
Age effects are not strong but generally any age after primary school will show improvements.
Which type of exercise works best?
Aerobic exercise works. Anaerobic and muscular resistance training regimes may have the opposite effect but more research is needed before strong conclusions can be drawn.
At what time of day are the improvements seen?
In the morning. However, often testing time is not reported, so don’t take my word for it.
So much for the self-help. But what does it all mean? Chang and colleagues interpret their results in terms of some unspecified bodily mechanism related to exercise, e.g., heart rate, to increase to some optimal level. Before it declines again to rest level, one has got a limited time window of perhaps 15 minutes in order to show minimally improved cognition. It is a nice illustration of how body and mind are intertwined.
So, had my mother cycled – instead of driven a car – her chances of nearly driving down the wrong side of the motorway would perhaps have been a bit smaller. Also, her chances of riding on a bicycle on any motorway at all would have been smaller, of course. Well, you get my point.
Now think about all the great inventions, all the great ideas, all the great insights that we could have had if only we didn’t spend the 15 minutes after physical exercise with stretching, chatting, and showering. Now go jogging for fifteen minutes and, immediately afterwards, think again.
Chang, Y.K., Labban, J.D., Gapin, J.I., Etnier, J.L. (2012). The effects of acute exercise on cognitive performance: A meta-analysis. Brain Research, 1453, 87-101. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2012.02.068