Projects in Language, Action, and Brains

Supervised by Jeremy I. Skipper

Language is a joint-action that distinguishes humans from other animals. It is also our most important tool for obtaining, organizing, and conveying information and providing social cohesion. Together we will research the neurobiology of language and action in your senior project.

The New Organization of Language and the Brain
It is often said that language is supported by a small set of brain areas in the left hemisphere. Prior experiments thought to localize hypothetical linguistic functions in the brain, however, do not resemble our everyday experience with language. In order to address the open question of how the brain supports language in natural settings, we will study how the brain processes more ecological stimuli. Your project will focus on the neural mechanisms underlying the use of “contextual” information contained in naturalistic stimuli (e.g., you might analyze fMRI data from a television game show containing real-world dialogue). Specifically, research questions might address how the brain uses:

A) Observable movements (e.g., mouth movements and gestures).
B) Other types of non-verbal behavior (e.g., emotions).
C) Prior knowledge and expectations (e.g., in predicting upcoming words).
D) Other forms of contextual information (e.g., written text).
E) These various contexts in conjunction.

The Role of the Motor System in Human Cognition and Action Perception
Much of the work I have done with respect to the organization of language and the brain has shown that the motor system plays a central role in language. Specifically, the motor system becomes active when observing speech-associated movements or when expectations about forthcoming words are strong. I have also shown that the motor system plays an important role in the representation of word meanings and in observing naturalistic non-verbal actions (e.g., joint-actions like passing a cup). You will research why and under what conditions the motor system becomes active in a manner similar to what would occur had the listener or observer produced movements. Projects might address questions of the role of the motor system in A) Simulating others’ actions, B) Word meaning, C) Decision-making, D) Prediction, or E) Joint-Actions.

Research Plan
During the fall semester we will isolate an appropriate question, perform a literature review, and do an accompanying meta-analysis of brain activity on existing experiments related to that question. We will also devise a behavioral (e.g., using eye or mouse tracking methodologies) or EEG experiment or an analysis routine appropriate for previously collected fMRI data to address this question. The spring semester will be devoted to acquiring and/or analyzing and interpreting the data and, most importantly, writing results up for conference presentation and eventual publication.