How the Brain Works During Simultaneous Interpretation

Summary: A new EEG study reveals how the brain utilizes more cognitive resources to hold memory and process previous information.

Source: Higher School of Economics.

Researchers at the Centre for Bioelectric Interfaces and the Centre for Cognition & Decision Making of the Higher School of Economics utilized electroencephalogram (EEG) and the event-related potential (ERP) technique to study neural activity during simultaneous interpretation of continuous prose..

Using event-related potentials as an index of depth of attention to the sounding fragment, the researchers assessed the competition between memory and auditory perception during simultaneous interpretation. The results of the study were published in the journal PLoS ONE.

According to the ‘Efforts Model’ proposed by the French linguist Daniel Gile, during simultaneous interpretation the brain performs three concurrent mental operations: it perceives and processes current fragments of the message in the original language, stores previously heard information in memory, and, finally, generates an equivalent message in the target language. HSE researchers decided to use EEG and the ERP method to test whether these three operations are performed simultaneously or whether there is dynamic redistribution of a limited resource of attention between them.

Millions of neurons in the human brain are constantly exchanging information through short electrical impulses. The activity of large populations of neurons can be recorded from the surface of the head using electroencephalography (EEG). EEG is a powerful method of studying cognitive processes and is used in many research fields.

As the participants (nine professional simultaneous interpreters) translated the speech from the UN Security Council meeting from Russian into English and back, their brain activity was recorded. Task-irrelevant probe stimuli with a duration of 50 milliseconds were played in parallel with the original speech. They were also processed by the brain and elicited event-related potentials. The EEG recording was then divided into segments, the beginning of which corresponded to the onset of the task-irrelevant probes. By averaging these EEG segments the researchers determined the brain’s systematic response to the probes, i.e. event-related potential. The results obtained allowed the authors to quantify how the interpreter’s auditory attention changed throughout the interpretation.

The data suggested that simultaneous interpreters work in the mode of dynamic redistribution of attention. In particular, as the backlog from the speaker increases, the depth of processing information currently heard by the interpreter decreases. In other words, the more the interpreter lags from the speaker, the more cognitive resources are engaged by working memory to hold and process previous information, and the less resources are available to process new information.

eeg output
The topographical distributions are shown for low (A), medium (B) and high (C) WM load. WM load estimation method: CL. image is credited to Ossadtchi et al./PLOS ONE.

‘The art of simultaneous interpreting has little to do with word-for-word translation. Rather, it is to know when to slow down, abstract from the speaker’s words to be able to produce an elegant translation based on a larger context constructed from the speaker’s previous discourse and common sense’. ‘At the same time, it is important not to fall behind the speaker a lot,’ explains Roman Koshkin, author of the article and a professional simultaneous interpreter. ‘I hope that our research will help our colleagues find the perfect number of words that allows them to understand and convey the meaning of what was said to the audience without missing important details due to memory overload.’

‘Our results will help us to design a method of ranking simultaneous interpreters and finding their optimal ‘working point’, says Alex Ossadtchi, Leading Research Fellow at the HSE Centre for Cognition & Decision Making and one of the study’s authors.

About this neuroscience research article

Funding: Center for Bioelectric Interfaces of the Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience of the National Research University Higher School of Economics, RF Government grant funded this study.

Source: Liudmila Mezentseva – Higher School of Economics
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is credited to Ossadtchi et al./PLOS ONE.
Original Research: Open access research for “Testing the efforts model of simultaneous interpreting: An ERP study” by Roman Koshkin, Yury Shtyrov, Andriy Myachykov, and Alex Ossadtchi in PLOS ONE. Published October 24 2018.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]Higher School of Economics”How the Brain Works During Simultaneous Interpretation.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 18 January 2019.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]Higher School of Economics(2019, January 18). How the Brain Works During Simultaneous Interpretation. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved January 18, 2019 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]Higher School of Economics”How the Brain Works During Simultaneous Interpretation.” (accessed January 18, 2019).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Testing the efforts model of simultaneous interpreting: An ERP study

We utilized the event-related potential (ERP) technique to study neural activity associated with different levels of working memory (WM) load during simultaneous interpretation (SI) of continuous prose. The amplitude of N1 and P1 components elicited by task-irrelevant tone probes was significantly modulated as a function of WM load but not the direction of interpretation. Furthermore, the latency of the P1 increased significantly with WM load. The WM load effect on N1 latency, however, did not reach significance. Larger negativity under lower WM loads suggests that more attention is available to process the source message, providing the first electrophysiological evidence in support of the Efforts Model of SI. Relationships between the direction of interpretation and median WM load are also discussed.

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