Springer Nature is making SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 research free. View research | View latest news | Sign up for updates

Perceptual complexity of lexical, surface structure, and deep structure types of ambiguous sentences and change in heart rate

  • 48 Accesses


Studies comparing lexical, surface-, and deep-structure types of ambiguous sentences with unambiguous ones for perceptual complexity show conflicting findings mainly because of task artifiacts and lack of adequate control of confounding variables. In the present study, three types of ambiguous sentences and matched unambiguous controls were compared. Acceleration and deceleration measures of heart rate (HR) were used since these have been shown to reliably indicate complexity of cognitive activity. The study used a Groups x Ambiguity Condition x Ambiguous Sentence-Type x Sentence-Clusters repeated measures Latin Square ANOVA design which permitted isolation of variance related to the specific ample of sentences used. Eighteen low-bias ambiguous sentences (six from each type) and their control pairs, divided into three lists, were presented to 30 male undergraduates. Analysis of data showed: (1) significant Ambiguity x Type and Ambiguity effects for the percentage of increase in HR during processing of the sentence and, (2) significant effect of Ambiguity for the percentage of decrease in HR. These results were interpreted as showing that while low-bias ambiguous sentences are perceptually more complex than unambiguous ones, the effect of ambiguity may be greater for deep-structure type of ambiguous sentences than for lexical and surface-structure types.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Reference Note

  1. Mohanty, A. K.Perception of ambiguous sentences: Effects of bias, sentence type, and task. Paper presented at the Annual Convention of the Canadian Psychological Association, Toronto, June 1976.


  1. Bever, T. G., Garrett, M. F., & Hurtig, R. The interaction of perceptual processes and ambiguous sentences.Memory and Cognition, 1973,1 277–286.

  2. Cairns, H. S. Effects of bias on processing and reprocessing of lexically ambiguous sentences.Journal of Experimental Psychology, 1973,97, 337–343.

  3. Cairns, H. S., & Kamerman, J. Lexical information processing during sentence comprehension.Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 1975,14, 170–179.

  4. Carroll, J. B. Defining language comprehension. In J. B. Carroll & R. O. Freedle (Eds.),Language comprehension and acquisition of knowledge, Washington, D.C.: V. H. Winston & Sons, 1972.

  5. Clark, H. H. The language-as-fixed-effect fallacy: A critique of language statistics in psychological research.Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 1973,12, 335–359.

  6. Coles, M. G. Physiological activity and detection: The effects of attentional requirements and the prediction of performance.Biological Psychology, 1974,2, 113–125.

  7. Dahl, H., & Spence, D. P. Mean heart rate predicted by task demand characteristics.Psychophysiology, 1971,7, 369–376.

  8. Foss, D. Some effects of ambiguity upon sentence comprehension.Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 1970,9, 699–706.

  9. Foss, D., Bever, T. G., & Silver, M. The comprehension and verification of ambiguous sentences.Perception and Psychophysics, 1968,4, 304–306.

  10. Hahn, W. W. Attention and heart rate: A critical appraisal of the hypothesis of Lacey and Lacey.Psychological Bulletin, 1973,79, 59–70.

  11. Holmes, V. S., Arwas, R., & Garrett, M. F. Prior context and the perception of lexically ambiguous sentences.Memory and Cognition, 1977,5, 103–110.

  12. Hoppe, R. A., & Kess, J. F. Differential detection of ambiguity in Japanese.Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 1980,9, 303–318.

  13. Lacey, J. I. Psychophysiological approaches to the evaluation of psychotherapeutic process and outcome. In E. Rubenstein & M. Parloff (Eds.),Research in psychotherapy (Vol. 1). Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1959.

  14. Lacey, J. I. Somatic response patterning and stress: Some revisions of activation theory. In M. H. Appley & R. Prumbull (Eds.),Psycgological stress: Issues in research. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967.

Download references

Author information

Additional information

This report is based on the author's doctoral dissertation at the University of Alberta. Thanks are due to Drs. W. H. O. Schmidt, J. P. Das, W. J. M. Baker, and R. F. Mulcahy, for their thoughtful advice, to Dr. T. Maguire for his suggestions on the experimental design and statistical analyses, and to the anonymous reviewer and Dr. C. Hallschmid for their comments on an earlier draft of this paper.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Mohanty, A.K. Perceptual complexity of lexical, surface structure, and deep structure types of ambiguous sentences and change in heart rate. J Psycholinguist Res 12, 339–352 (1983). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01067675

Download citation


  • Heart Rate
  • Cognitive Psychology
  • Surface Structure
  • Structure Type
  • Confounding Variable