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Centre for Speech, Language, and the Brain (CSLB)

Department of Psychology

Language dynamics: a neurocognitive approach to incremental interpretation

Understanding spoken language involves a set of complex processes that continuously transform the auditory input into a meaningful interpretation. When we hear spoken language, our percept is not of acoustic-phonetic detail but of the speaker’s intended meaning. This effortless transition occurs on millisecond timescales, with remarkable speed and accuracy, and without any awareness of the complex computations on which it depends.

Our research investigates the neural computations and mechanisms that support the transition from sound to meaning, and the neurobiological systems in which they are instantiated.

To do this, we combine advanced techniques from neuroimaging, multivariate statistics and computational linguistics to probe directly the dynamic patterns of neural activity that are elicited by spoken words and sentences. Combined MEG + EEG imaging capture the real-time electrophysiological activity of the brain. Representational Similarity Analysis (RSA) and related multivariate techniques make it possible to probe the different types of neural computation that support these dynamic processes of incremental interpretation.

Computational linguistic analyses of language corpora allow us to build quantifiable models of different dimensions of language interpretation – from phonetics and phonology to argument structure and anaphora -- and to test for their presence, using RSA, as spoken language unfolds in real time. By this means we aim to determine directly the nature of the intermediate processes involved in the transition from early perceptual processing through different representational states to the development of a meaningful representation of an utterance, the dynamic spatio-temporal relationship between these processes, and their evolution over time.