A recent American study has shown that negation in a sentence - a useful and informative one, at that - does not make it more challenging for the brain to understand the statement. This comes after past research had suggested that including a negative word like "not" in the middle of a sentence makes it more difficult to for the receiver to understand.
Psychologists Mante S. Nieuwland and Gina R. Kuperberg from Tufts University came to this conclusion after studying how different types of negative statements-pragmatically licensed or pragmatically unlicensed-are processed in the brain.
Pragmatically licensed statements are informative and sound natural. For example, "In moderation, drinking red wine isn't bad for your health."
Pragmatically unlicensed statements, on the other hand, are unnatural and not helpful. For example, "Vitamins and proteins aren't very bad for your health." This statement is unlicensed because including the negative word "aren't" implies that vitamins and proteins may be bad for your health, which we know is not true.
Negative words in such statements renders them trivial and not very useful.
For their study, the researchers measured event related potential responses (ERPs) as the subjects read statements containing critical, mid-sentence words that made the statement true or false.
The participants read statements that were either pragmatically licensed or pragmatically unlicensed.
Reporting their findings in the journal Psychological Science, the researchers say that the way negative statements are processed in the brain depends on the structure of the sentence itself.
Just as in true statements, false words elicited larger ERPs than true words in pragmatically-licensed negative sentences, which suggests that there was greater brain activity when the participants came across a word which rendered the statement false.
However, in the pragmatically unlicensed sentences, true and false words elicited similar ERPs.
The researchers said that their results indicated that negation, when it is useful and informative, as in pragmatically licensed statements, does not make it more challenging for the brain to understand the negative meaning of the statement.