Conditions of understanding using experimental methods are being examined. Neuroscientific and psychophysiological research techniques, combined with measurements of task performance speed and accuracy or qualitative interaction analysis, enable exploration of the intertwinement of understanding as a social process and underlying bio-psychological processes.
In these studies, it was found that task-irrelevant speech during reading sentences and task-irrelevant text during listening to sentences decrease accuracy in classifying attended sentences as logical or illogical (Moisala et al., 2015). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) showed that this deterioration in task performance is associated with enhanced activity in the same prefrontal areas that show enhanced activity in a dual-task condition where participants were instructed to attend simultaneously to concurrent written and spoken sentences (see also Moisala et al., 2016). This suggests that also distracting information during semantic processing forces us to dual task, that is, to actively suppress processing of irrelevant sentences while attempting to comprehend the attended sentences. In a new project, fMRI and electro- and magnetoencephalography (EEG and MEG) will be used to study, how increasing acoustic quality (speech comprehensibility), increasing amount of visual-speech (facial-movement) information and semantic predictability in speech affect brain activity and facilitate selective listening in noisy situations, that is, at the presence of irrelevant speech.
Experimental methods can also elucidate understanding of emotions in social interaction. A study combining conversation analysis with psychophysiological measurements has shown that a co-interactant’s ambivalence—i.e. emotional expression where positive and negative stances are mixed—invokes physiological stress in an interaction participant (Voutilainen et al 2014). The physiological stress suggests that ambivalence is hard to understand. On the other hand, the experience of being understood reduces the physiological stress in interaction: when stories are told in social interaction, and the story recipient displays affiliation verbally and non-verbally, the storyteller’s physiological arousal diminishes, while the story recipient’s level of arousal gets higher (Peräkylä et al. 2015). At the moment, the scope of studies of this kind is expanding to include ‘a-typical’ populations, such as persons with autism spectrum disorders. Furthermore, the paradigm is being carried over to naturally occurring psychotherapy sessions. The aim is examine the physiological parallels of understanding in this setting where understanding and being understood are at the core of the professional action.
Moisala, M., Salmela, V., Salo, E., Carlson, S., Vuontela, V., Salonen, O. & Alho, K. Brain activity during divided and selective attention to auditory and visual sentence comprehension tasks. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2015, 9, 86.
Moisala, M., Salmela, V., Hietajärvi, L., Salo, E., Carlson, S., Salonen, O., Lonka, K., Hakkarainen, K., Salmela-Aro, K. & Alho, K. Media multitasking is associated with distractibility and increased prefrontal activity in adolescents and young adults. NeuroImage, 2016, 134, 113-121.
Peräkylä, A., Henttonen, P., Voutilainen, L., Kahri, M., Stevanovic, M., Sams, M. & Ravaja, N. (2015) Sharing the Emotional Load: Recipient Affiliation Calms Down the Storyteller. Social Psychology Quarterly, 2015, 78(4):301-323.
Voutilainen, L., Henttonen, P., Kahri, M., Kivioja, M., Ravaja, N:, Sams, M., & Peräkylä, A. Affective stance, ambivalence and psychophysiology in conversational storytelling. Journal of Pragmatics, 2014, 68, July 2014:1-24.