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How do our brains process speech? - Gareth Gaskell

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The average 20-year-old knows between 27,000 and 52,000 different words. Spoken out loud, most of these words last less than a second. With every word, the brain has a quick decision to make: which of those thousands of options matches the signal? And about 98% of the time, the brain chooses the correct word. How is this possible? Gareth Gaskell digs into the complexities of speech comprehension.

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Gareth Gaskell
  • Director Skirmanta Jakaite
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Storyboard Artist Skirmanta Jakaite
  • Animator Skirmanta Jakaite
  • Art Director Skirmanta Jakaite
  • Music Stephen LaRosa
  • Sound Designer Stephen LaRosa
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Emma Bryce
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma
  • See more
Additional Resources for you to Explore
These days, people are routinely outperformed by computers in all kinds of different tasks. But one ability for which humans still hold the crown is speech recognition, a task that we carry out hundreds of times a day without a passing thought. How does this work, and what makes us so good at it?

Often psychologists learn a lot from cases where language is ambiguous. The ambiguity can slow down recognition to make it easier for us to understand what’s going on. Ambiguity also allows us to test theories about the types of information that are used routinely to ease comprehension. A classic example of ambiguity that became prominent in 2018 was the yanny/laurel ambiguity, which showed how much individuals can differ in their comprehension of the same speech. You can find out more about the science behind this example, and even adjust the prominence of the different frequency bands in the clip to find your own boundary between the two words.

Although less well known, this example of ambiguity may be even more compelling. For many people, you can decide what you are going to hear in advance. If you think you’re going to hear “green needle” you do; if you think you’re going to hear “brainstorm” you hear that. It’s a great example of “bistability” in perception, and particularly impressive because the two interpretations seem so different.

If you would like to find out more about how models of spoken word recognition work, and even download the software to try one out for yourself then check this page.

Or you can find out more about how we learn new words, and how sleep helps us to do this.

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About TED-Ed Animations

TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Gareth Gaskell
  • Director Skirmanta Jakaite
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Storyboard Artist Skirmanta Jakaite
  • Animator Skirmanta Jakaite
  • Art Director Skirmanta Jakaite
  • Music Stephen LaRosa
  • Sound Designer Stephen LaRosa
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Producer Bethany Cutmore-Scott
  • Editorial Producer Elizabeth Cox
  • Script Editor Emma Bryce
  • Fact-Checker Eden Girma
  • See more