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Front. Hum. Neurosci. | doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2019.00077

Phonological ambiguity detection outside of consciousness, and its defensive avoidance

  • 1Faculté des Sciences Psychologiques et de l'Education, Free University of Brussels, Belgium
  • 2University of Michigan, United States
  • 3Mississippi State University, United States

Freud proposes that in unconscious processing, logical connections are also (heavily) based upon phonological similarities. Repressed concerns, for example, would express themselves by way of phonologic ambiguity. In order to investigate a possible unconscious influence of phonological similarity, 31 participants were submitted to a tachistoscopic subliminal priming experiment, with prime and target presented at 1 msec. In the experimental condition, the prime and one of the targets were phonological reverses though graphemically dissimilar (e.g. “nice” and “sign”); in the control condition the targets were pseudo-randomly attributed to primes to which they don’t belong. The experimental task was to “blindly” pick the choice most similar to the prime. ERPs were measured with a focus on the N320, which is known to react selectively to phonological mismatch in supraliminal visual word presentations. The N320 amplitude-effects at the electrodes on the midline and at the left of the brain significantly predicted the participants’ net behavioural choices more than half a second later, while their subjective experience is one of complete arbitrariness. Moreover, the social desirability score (SDS) significantly correlates with both the behavioural and the N320 brain responses of the participants. It is proposed that in participants with low SDS the phonological target induces a normal reduction of N320 as compared to control that increases their probability to pick this target, while high defensive participants have a perplexed brain reaction upon the phonological target with a negatively peaking N320 as compared to control that more often leads them to avoid this target. Social desirability, which is understood as reflecting defensiveness, might also manifest itself as a defence against the (energy-consuming) ambiguity of language. The specificity of this study is that all of this is happening totally out of awareness and at the level of very elementary linguistic distinctions.

Keywords: phonology, subliminal, unconscious, N320, ambiguity, avoidance, Consciousness, defence

Received: 02 Sep 2018; Accepted: 14 Feb 2019.

Edited by:

Anatolia Salone, Università degli Studi G. d'Annunzio Chieti e Pescara, Italy

Reviewed by:

Gerd T. Waldhauser, Ruhr University Bochum, Germany
Francesca Ferri, Università degli Studi G. d'Annunzio Chieti e Pescara, Italy  

Copyright: © 2019 Bazan, Kushwaha, Winer, Snodgrass, Brakel and Shevrin. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Prof. Ariane Bazan, Free University of Brussels, Faculté des Sciences Psychologiques et de l'Education, Brussels, 1050, Belgium,