Brain Mechanisms and Cognitive Processes in the Comprehension of Discourse

12 - 16 March 2007

Venue: Lorentz Center@Oort

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Historically, research on language is at the roots of cognitive science. It is also a prime example of the highly interdisciplinary nature of cognitive systems investigations. In research on how people syntactically parse a sentence, for example, linguistic analyses, cognitive-psychological experiments, computational simulations, neuropsychological case studies and neuro-imaging experiments converge to identify the nature of the human parsing system. In addition to word level language comprehension, successful communication requires the use of background knowledge and pragmatics. Discourse comprehension studies are concerned with the interplay between linguistic and cognitive factors during language interpretation.

In research on discourse comprehension, linguists and cognitive psychologists also have combined forces (such as via the Society for Text and Discourse meetings) for some time. However, our understanding of the neural basis of discourse comprehension, and its implications for cognitive and linguistic theory, has remained relatively undeveloped. One reason is that, for experimenters, the combination of discourse-level language materials and neuro-imaging methodology presents a number of challenging practical problems. A deeper reason is that the expertise needed to design a good discourse-relevant neuro-imaging study, or to develop a theory of discourse comprehension that takes into account what we know about language, about cognition, and about the brain, is distributed over different, relatively non-interacting scientific communities: whereas discourse experts meet in forums such as the Society for Text and Discourse meetings, much of the psycholinguistic neuro-imaging expertise was until quite recently concentrated in laboratories focusing on sentence-level issues, with the experts meeting at such forums as the CUNY sentence processing conference, the Cognitive Neuroscience Society meeting or the Human Brain Mapping conference. Although historically and sociologically understandable, this separation of fields is bound to block progress.

The aim of our 5-day workshop is to advance our understanding of how readers and listeners comprehend discourse by bringing together representatives from linguistics, cognitive psychology, and (cognitive) neuroscience, and by providing an atmosphere conducive to the exchange of ideas, mutual learning, and development of ideas for future research. Participants with a focus in neuroscience will be able to familiarize themselves with linguistic and cognitive theories of discourse comprehension, whereas those with a focus on linguistics and cognition will be able to become acquainted with relevant findings and methodologies in cognitive neuroscience.

To achieve our aims, the morning sessions are organized in terms of the various fields involved in discourse comprehension research: (1) constraints from linguistics and from neuroscience, (2) processing models, (3) high-speed neuro-imaging studies (EEG, MEG), (4) neural substrate identification (fMRI, PET, hemifield techniques), and (5) individual variations in discourse comprehension, including patient research. For each discipline, two senior speakers will give a 1-hr plenary overview of their own and related research approaches and will specifically identify issues relevant to interdisciplinary collaboration (e.g., what they need from other fields as well as what they can bring to those other fields). Two to three afternoons will host small-scale discussion groups around specific themes, followed by a 1-hr plenary lecture on a topic relevant to discourse comprehension (e.g., conversation, figurative language). In addition, the afternoons will host a demonstration or hands-on session on neuroimaging, a poster session (with room for posters from all ~30-40 attendants), and a social event.


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