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To address this question, Dr. Berent and her colleagues examined the response of human brains to distinct syllable types — either ones that are frequent across languages (e.g., blif, bnif), or infrequent (e.g., bdif, lbif). In the experiment, participants heard one auditory stimulus at a time (e.g., lbif), and were then asked to determine whether the stimulus includes one syllable or two while their brain was simultaneously imaged.
Results showed the syllables that were infrequent and ill-formed, as determined by their linguistic structure, were harder for people to process. Remarkably, a similar pattern emerged in participants’ brain responses: worse-formed syllables (e.g., lbif) exerted different demands on the brain than syllables that are well-formed (e.g., blif).