A new study concludes that, while reading, the human brain processes language differently depending on the person’s situation. The researchers found that reading in company might result in more creativity and integrative thinking and comprehension than reading alone.

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For several decades, neuroscientists have known that when studying how the brain processes language, it is important to take social context into account.

Changes in an individual’s performance take place when they are in the presence of others. Scientists refer to this as the social facilitation theory. In fact, the effects of social facilitation appear to improve learning and memory.

Previous studies have demonstrated certain positive effects of reading in the company of other people. These include increased drive, attention, and focus. After all, humans are known as social species.

However, what remains unclear is the role that social context plays in influencing people’s ability to process language — specifically, how people process semantic and syntactic aspects of language. Although semantics is the study of meaning in language, syntax refers to how words and sentences are arranged to create sentences.

In a recent study, the results of which appear in the journal Cortex, a group of researchers delved into the role of social context in language processing.

They measured the brain activity of 28 female and two male native Spanish speakers using electroencephalography. The participants’ mean age was 22.5 years.

All of them were right-handed and had normal vision. Also, they had no history of neural or cognitive conditions or of taking psychiatric medications.

The researchers, from the Complutense University of Madrid and the Carlos III Health Institute, both in Spain, used a technique called event-related brain potentials. This technique can study the relationship between linguistic behavior and psychological processes as they unfold over time.

The researchers provided the participants with Spanish sentences modified to form two types of incorrect sentences. In total, there were 300 incorrect sentences — with either semantic or syntactic errors — and 100 correct “filler” sentences.

The participants sat in a quiet room in front of a flat panel display screen. Half of them were alone, and half were in the company of one other person, who sat approximately 55 centimeters to the participant’s right. This distance ensured that they were within the participant’s peripheral vision.

The sentences appeared in white letters against a black background. The scientists asked the participants to press particular buttons to mark each sentence as either correct or incorrect.

As the scientists measured their brain activity, they observed that those reading in company showed activity in the precuneus, whereas those reading alone did not.

The precuneus is an area of the brain responsible for merging information relating to the perception of the environment. It is also involved in social and attentional processing.

When participants were reading with someone else present, the scientists detected specific electrical activity, known as N400. This activity is a normal brain response to meaningful or potentially meaningful stimuli.

N400 signals tend to suggest that an individual is engaged in problem solving, using creative tactics, and utilizing disparate parts of their brain.

Although the researchers found that reading in company can result in a more creative and integrated understanding, reading alone has its own benefits.

The electrical brain activity in the participants reading alone showed what is known as the left-lateralized anterior negativity pattern. This is characteristic of early stage, more automatic processing.

Speaking with Medical News Today, lead study author Laura Jiménez-Ortega said: “From my own experience, I realize that [studying] science, technology, engineering, and math require general, integrative, and creative comprehension and thinking. According to our study, in that case, it is better not to be alone.”

“However,” she added, “tasks that are more systematic or automatic, like detecting errors systematically, reading/following systematic instructions might benefit by being alone.”

“Recently, I was systematically checking my students’ marks, and for that, it is better to be alone. Later, I have to design a new research study, and it requires creativity, integrative thinking, and comprehension. So, for that, I need to meet with my colleagues.”