This is what happens when your brain is given facts versus possibilities

Choose your words very carefully. According to a new study just released by New York University, our brains process statements presented as factual very differently than information shared as a possibility.

Via a series of experiments and brain scans, the team at NYU has discovered for the first time that the human mind expends a whole lot more energy interpreting information presented as fact. For example, the statement “no one is home” evokes much more neural activity than “perhaps no one is home”.

“Our study makes clear that information presented as fact evokes special responses in our brains, distinct from when we process the same content with clear markers of uncertainty, like ‘may’ or ‘might’,” explains senior study author Liina Pylkkanen, a professor in NYU’s Department of Linguistics and Department of Psychology, in a release.

“Language is a powerful device to effectively transmit information, and the way in which information is presented has direct consequences for how our brains process it,” adds lead author Maxime Tulling, a doctoral candidate in NYU’s Department of Linguistics. “Our brains seem to be particularly sensitive to information that is presented as fact, underlining the power of factual language.”

The line between fact and fiction has felt particularly blurred in recent years, and these findings just go to show how compelling information can be when it is presented confidently as fact – even if in reality it’s false.

“At a time of voluminous fake news and disinformation, it is more important than ever to separate the factual from the possible or merely speculative in how we communicate,” professor Pylkkanen notes.

Does this mean our minds automatically believe everything presented as fact? Not necessarily, but the human brain does appear to make a clear distinction when it comes to processing language presented as fact and information conveyed vaguely.

The key difference-makers here are “modal” words such as “if,” “may,” or “might”. So, the team at NYU set up a series of experiments in which participants heard various sentences or scenarios presented as either fact or possibility. One situation used was: “Knights carry large swords, so the squires do too” (fact) and “If knights carry large swords, the squires do too” (possibility).

While they were hearing all that, magnetoencephalography (MEG) was used to measure brain activity and neural responses to the statements.

The results were quite compelling. Upon hearing the more confident, factual-sounding statements participants’ brains showed a much faster jump in neural activity and more robust engagement in comparison to the sentences conveying possibility.

“Facts rule when it comes to the brain,” professor Pylkkanen comments. “Brain regions involved in processing discourse rapidly differentiated facts from possibilities, responding much more robustly to factual statements than to non-factual ones. These findings suggest that the human brain has a powerful, perspective-adjusted neural representation of factual information and, interestingly, much weaker, more elusive cortical signals reflecting the computation of mere possibilities.”

It’s easy to apply these findings to the worlds of news media or politics, but there’s also a much more practical way to interpret these discoveries that can be applied to anyone’s everyday life. 

The research team didn’t dive into the specific implications of how the brain processes “factual” and “possible” phrased sentences, but it’s plausible to theorize that our minds spend extra energy on factually presented information because it’s supposed to be, well, true.

The next time you need to make a point in a conversation or meeting, try speaking with more confident, factual-sounding phrases. That doesn’t mean flat out lying or presenting untrue information as fact, but these findings certainly suggest that other people will focus more on what you have to say if you say it confidently like you really believe it.

“By investigating language containing clear indicators of possibility compared to factual utterances, we were able to find out which regions of the brain help to rapidly separate non-factual from factual language,” Tulling concludes. “Our study thus illustrates how our choice of words has a direct impact on subconscious processing.”

The full study can be found here, published in eNeuro.