Story posted December 21, 2010
It was a piece of cake. It was on everyone's lips.
Over the past two years, Bowdoin Professor of Psychology Louisa Slowiaczek has had no shortage of students willing to participate in her psycholinguistics experiment on idioms.
All the students had to do was to listen to a series of idioms being spoken. After hearing each phrase, a word would then appear on a computer screen—that might or might not be related to the idiom's meaning. Their task was to read the word aloud, with their response time clocked within milliseconds by a software program. Lastly, they read a list of idioms and rated their familiarity with them.
Slowiaczek designed the 15-minute experiment to test one model of language comprehension that suggests that words in idioms are often accessed together and have very strong cognitive pathways between them.
As a result, the idiomatic meaning of familiar idioms should be activated faster than the words' literal meanings. Such a difference would not be found, however, for idioms that are unfamiliar."
There was one wrinkle in Slowiaczek's theory, however. A fly in the ointment: Many of the student participants didn't know what they were listening to.
"I have to tell you, I did the experiment three times, changed words, and still could not get the effect we expected," says Slowiaczek. "Then it dawned on me that students, undergraduate students, are not that familiar with idioms."
Slowiaczek realized she would have to change the experiment. This time, she advertised for 45 to 65-year-old participants, who would presumably be more familiar with idioms. A recent listing in the Bowdoin digest got a hearty response from the Bowdoin community and beyond.
Karen Jung, Bowdoin's Music Librarian, was one of the 32 participants in Phase II of the experiment. As she emerged from the small Kanbar Hall lab where the testing took place, she mused over the methodology:
"At first it was making sense," said Jung, "then all of the sudden I saw words unassociated with the idioms. It was a kind of a shock. As I was saying them, I was thinking about that idiom as I was saying the word even though it wasn't making any sense."
In spite of this cognitive dissonance, Jung "performed" her responses perfectly. Too perfectly. She recited each word without hesitation or substitution and showed the highest level of familiarity with every idiom listed.
Jung wasn't alone. As student research assistants Joanna Kass '11 and Anirudh Sreekrishnan '11 tallied up results of the tests, they realized that the older participants knew the idioms too well.
"I think it's really interesting seeing the reactions between the younger generation and the adults," notes Sreekrishnan, who is a neuroscience major. "A lot of these adults know all the idioms. From my conversations with the participants, they think they are processing the idiomatic meaning before the literal, but it will take some time before we know what the evidence supports."
Slowiaczek is using idiom testing to better understand human language processing—which takes place so quickly and efficiently it is nearly impossible to analyze: "We have thousands of words in our heads and can assemble them in any order," marvels Slowiaczek. "It's a task that is so complex and difficult and yet humans can do it with incredible ease. How does that happen?
"If you look at phenomena like idioms, or odd cases where sentence structure sends language retrieval in the wrong direction," she says, "sometimes you can reveal something about processing that you couldn't see in regular sentences."
Hoping to solve a piece of that puzzle, Slowiaczek and her research assistants have gone back to the drawing board to consider new ways to modify the experiment or interpret results to offer a more diverse sample.
"To get at what I really need to know I have to find subjects for whom idioms are both familiar and unfamiliar," notes Slowiaczek. "We might put the two data sets together. Or we might go back to the idiom dictionary to try to find idioms adults don't know that well."
She pulls down a well-worn idiom dictionary from a bookshelf in her office and begins flipping through.
"Let's see," she says. "Hmmm. Not worth a plugged nickel. Does anyone know that one?" Sreekrishnan and Kass exchange iffy looks.
"Good," smiles Slowiaczek, "make a note of that one. We'll add it to the next round."