With our brain, we should be better at language games
Language games such as Wordfeud or Wordle are popular. Still, our brain predicts words better than we do in language games. Micha Heilbron discovered that, with given letters, we can implicitly and explicitly make words.
‘C, ca, cap’, says Micha Heilbron. He continues: ‘Capi, capit, capital.’ Heilbron does not have a speech impediment but is explaining how our brain handles sounds and letters. Last week he obtained his doctorate cum laude on the subject of how our brain makes linguistic predictions and what it is that it predicts. The neuroscientist at the Donders Institute explains how the brain works like Google’s search engine that, after filling in just one letter, already starts suggesting probable follow-up words based on predictions. Within milliseconds, the brain predicts what might be next after hearing or reading the first sounds or letters of the word ‘capital’.
‘Step by step, when more information becomes available, the brain will fill in what word might be next. It is like some sort of superlingo (Lingo is a Dutch language television show, ed.).’ Perhaps, it was not part of Heilbron’s research, is that why we still like to play language games such as Wordfeud or Wordle (Woordle in Dutch). Heilbron: ‘But there is a difference between what our brain does implicitly and what we do consciously. We should actually be much better at language games.’
If we would play language games like a machine and thus be much better at it, we might have had little fun playing, Heilbron suspects. ‘We enjoy the eureka moment, that satisfies our curiosity.’ Still, there are many mysteries left about our use of language, not only why our brain subconsciously knows more than we consciously express, but also why we sometimes can’t think of a word even though it’s on the tip of our tongue.
Also while reading, we are continuously guessing, Heilbron explains. The area our eyes can see sharp is about as big as the nail of our thumb on an arm’s length distance. That is why we not only need to move our eyes while reading, but also why we fill in words we only read half of. If you see some letters of the word xylophone, your brain knows the possible number of words is so limited that you don’t have to keep reading. ‘Reading as a psycholinguistic guessing game, they also call it’, Heilbron says.
Through his research, Heilbron has made clear that the brain is extremely sensitive to statistics. But in language games, we are not just our brain. Heilbron: ‘Apparently we like easy problems, fun but not frustrating. I suspect the game makers are looking for that sweet spot, but our brain can do much better.’
Game expert sees nothing new
On the train, linguist Hans van Halteren sometimes plays AlphaBetty on his phone, but his real passion lies with board games. In his office in the Erasmus building he surfs to boardgamegeek.com where he finds almost 4.000 results in the category word games. Which only proves once again that Wordle is just one of many. ‘O, this is just Lingo’, Van Halteren states while trying out Wordle. ‘And that was based on Mastermind.’ With a broad vocabulary and knowledge of the system you can quickly master a simple word game according to Van Halteren. He enjoys games where skill and strategy come together, but when it comes to learning rows of three-, four- or five-letter words by heart to win a game of Scrabble, he drops out. Even though that is a game where he hardly ever loses. Knowledge of letter frequencies (knowing how often each letter is used in a language) also helps with games like Wordle or Hangman, he says. ‘I do understand the attraction’, Van Halteren says about Wordle. ‘You can play on your phone, everyone can play, and it doesn’t take too long.’ If he is allowed to choose, Van Halteren prefers an analogue game like Codenames, where the interaction with other players is more important than your own vocabulary.