Hole Or Whole, Why Can Our Brains Hear The Difference?

Late summer tends to be a slow month for news. But at All Things Considered, we put on a two hour program, no matter what. So — without a trace of irony — one of our science correspondents offered to help fill some holes in the show with a series of stories about holes. Today he looks at how the brain copes with the ambiguity of "the hole idea," and "the whole idea."

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And finally this hour, a hole. This summer, NPR's science correspondent Joe Palca has been helping us out. Occasionally, our mix of news and features doesn't completely fill our two-hour program and we end up with a few small holes to fill, so Joe has been filling them with short science-y pieces about holes. He's talked about black holes, theoretical holes, even donut holes. Here's his latest.

JOE PALCA, BYLINE: After doing several stories about holes, I began to wonder whether this whole idea was such a good one. And then I thought, well, how come people don't get confused when I use the word hole in two different ways, like I did just now.

JENNIFER RODD: So what's going on with a word like hole is just an example of something that your brain is having to deal with pretty much all the time.

PALCA: Jennifer Rodd(ph) is at University College, London. She studies how our brain makes sense of these ambiguous sentences. She says usually we can sort out meaning by context.

RODD: The politicians running for election or the films running at the cinema or the rivers running through the valley.

PALCA: If context isn't available, we tend to fall back on the way the word is most commonly used.

RODD: If I say something like, can you see that pen, I haven't given you much context, but you're more like to assume I'm talking about something to write with than about an enclosure for animals.

PALCA: Another way to resolve ambiguities is recent experience. So if Robert Siegel and I just finished playing tennis and I said to him, I can't stand that racket, he'd probably think I was talking about the thing I just hit the tennis ball with and not heavy metal music or the dishonest business practices of the tennis club.

There is one occasion when people seek out ambiguity on purpose, puns, as in if gophers went extinct, it would upset the whole ecology. The hole ecology?

RODD: And for some reason that we completely don't understand, people find that funny.

PALCA: Well, if you ask me, this failure to understand the humor in puns is simply a case of scientists trying to by holier than thou. Joe Palca, NPR News.

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