The cognitive neuroscience of indeterminate language interpretation

A hallmark of linguistic communication is that ‘what is said’ often underdetermines ‘what is intended’ by a given utterance. Sentences such as ‘The author began the book’ or ‘The boy finished the game’ are semantically indeterminate because it is not clear what the author or the boy were really doing. When the activity is not specified, interpreting these common types of sentences might rely on different linguistic and cognitive processes. For instance, it is plausible to assume that a sentence such as ‘The author began the book’ licenses an interpretation such as ‘The author began writing the book’, although this is not specified in the sentence. A similar phenomenon occurs in cases where we assume an implicit modifier, as in ‘John had breakfast’ (‘today’) or ‘Mary is not going to die’ (‘any time soon’ or ‘because of x’). These sentences are often said to be ‘enriched’ during interpretation. The questions that this proposal addresses are: How do we succeed in interpreting these sentences? Where does the ‘enriching’ information come from? How much does a denotative representation of these sentences depend on the context of the utterance? And, fundamentally, what are the cognitive and brain mechanisms that allow for their interpretation?

The proposed research program will investigate the nature of sentence interpretation by exploring the cognitive, linguistic, and neurological underpinnings of indeterminate sentence processing. The main goal is to understand the processes responsible for “enriching” the content of a sentence that is otherwise indeterminate. The studies will employ diverse methods and experimental techniques, including psycholinguistic/behavioural experiments (e.g., response time, eye-tracking), and neuroimaging (fMRI). The studies will focus on the comprehension of sentences in context and in isolation, measuring (a) the relative contribution of context to the linguistic process of semantic analysis, (b) the time-course of contextual influence on sentence interpretation, and (c) the neuroanatomical structures supporting semantic and pragmatic processes. Investigating how we combine expressed and unexpressed or implicit information in linguistic utterances is key to understanding human communication, with implications for the investigation of language development and breakdown in cases of brain injuries and diseases.

Faculty Supervisor:

Roberto de Almeida








Concordia University



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