Physiological responses and cognitive behaviours: Measures of heart rate variability index language knowledge

Dagmar Divjak*, Hui Sun, Petar Milin

*Corresponding author for this work

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Over the past decades, focus has been on developing methods that allow tapping into aspects of cognition that are not directly observable. This includes linguistic knowledge and skills which develop largely without awareness and may therefore be difficult or impossible to articulate. Building on the relation between language cognition and the nervous system, we examine whether Heart Rate Variability (HRV), a cardiovascular measure that indexes Autonomic Nervous System activity, can be used to assess implicit language knowledge. We test the potential of HRV to detect whether individuals possess grammatical knowledge and explore how sensitive the cardiovascular response is.

41 healthy, British English-speaking adults listened to 40 English speech samples, half of which contained grammatical errors. Thought Technology's 5-channel ProComp 5 encoder tracked heart rate via a BVP-Flex/Pro sensor attached to the middle finger of the non-dominant hand, at a rate of 2048 samples per second. A Generalised Additive Mixed Effects Model confirmed a cardiovascular response to grammatical violations: there is a statistically significant reduction in HRV as indexed by NN50 in response to stimuli that contain errors. The cardiovascular response reflects the extent of the linguistic violations, and NN50 decreases linearly with an increase in the number of errors, up to a certain level, after which HRV remains constant.

This observation brings into focus a new dimension of the intricate relationship between physiology and cognition. Being able to use a highly portable and non-intrusive technique with language stimuli also creates exciting possibilities for assessing the language knowledge of individuals from a range of populations in their natural environment and in authentic communicative situations.
Original languageEnglish
Article number101177
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Neurolinguistics
Early online date12 Oct 2023
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2024

Bibliographical note

This work was funded by a Leverhulme Trust Research Leadership award (RL-2016-001) to Dagmar Divjak which funded all authors.


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