The Loh Down On Science

What makes the sixth sick sheik's sixth sheep sick?

Why do tongue twisters twist tongues?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science.

This just in from neurosurgeons in California:

While preparing epilepsy patients for surgery, they implanted electrodes under the patients’ skulls.  Then they had each patient repeat common syllables.  Ba, da, ga, and so on.

Equipment recorded activity in the patients’ sensorimotor cortex—the brain area controlling how our lips, tongue, jaw, and larynx generate sound.  The recordings documented the neural patterns behind each syllable, plus their location.

And?  Turns out, sounds formed in similar ways are controlled by similar neural patterns.  And by overlapping locations.  Economical!

For example, “see” and “she” both have the tongue right behind the teeth.  Similar neural patterns, from the same location, instigate those sounds.

Because “see” and “she” are neurally almost identical, saying them quickly confuses our brain ever so slightly:  She sells sea shells by the sea shore.

But:  She sells blue bells at the front door involves differing neural patterns, so no tongue twister.

And no fun!  Or at least no toy boats or sea shell sales.  It's a sadder paler world.

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The Loh Down on Science is produced by LDOS Media Lab, in partnership with the University of California, Irvine, and 89.3 KPCC. And made possible by the generous support of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.


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