PSYCHOLOGY: How the brain processes negation

PSYCHOLOGY: How the brain processes negation
PSYCHOLOGY: How the brain processes negation

Negating an adjective does indeed affect how the brain interprets its meaning, without completely reversing its interpretation. Previous research has already suggested that negations induce slower brain processing and more errors of interpretation.

“Not bad” does not mean “good”

The study is based on laboratory experiments, conducted with 78 participants invited to read expressions containing adjectives in the affirmative or negative, good/bad, not good/not bad, happy/sad, not happy/not sad, etc. on a screen and then to specify their meaning on a scale of 1 to 10. These experiments show that:

  • Participants take longer to respond to negated adjectives;
  • their interpretation is less clear;
  • the cursor reveals an understanding first in the affirmative before changing it in the opposite direction.

Another experiment, which asked participants to rate affirmative or negative sentences on a scale, with their brain activity monitored by magnetoencephalography (MEG) during the task, confirms:

  • slower reaction times for adjectives preceded by a negation;
  • Brain activity shows initially similar neural activations in the case of adjectives preceded by a negation vs. affirmative adjectives, but these activations then weaken.

What implications? The ability to characterize and analyze subtle changes in linguistic meaning through negation in the brain using imaging methods could help to dissociate comprehension from other complex linguistic processes, which do not obey the sum of the processing of individual word meanings. More prosaically,

the negation of “hot” reduces the temperature of the coffee, but does not cool it completely.

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