Ellen Lau, University of Maryland, will present “New ways forward in neurolinguistics: more thought, less words” in the Linguistics colloquium series at 3:30 Friday March 12. An abstract follows. All are welcome!
Figuring out the neural underpinnings of language processing is hard; we have to hold onto so many pieces from different disciplines that it’s easy for a few basics to fall off our ‘stack’. I’ll discuss a few that I’ve recently remembered myself, and that give me hope that I could actually have a few coherent things to say when I’m supposed to teach what is known about the neuroanatomy of language processing. First, we neuroscientists of language too often conflate language with non-linguistic thought and conceptual knowledge systems. We forget that when we observe ‘semantic’ neural responses, they may often reflect the activity of these non-linguistic conceptual systems, and we miss too many relevant insights about these systems from research in other domains of cognitive science. Changing my ways, here I will draw from theories about parietal cortex’s role in binding object representations in visual scene perception, to hypothesize that its responses during language comprehension reflect something like the binding of conceptual properties to discourse files. Second, following others in the field (Fedorenko et al. 2020, Matchin & Hickok 2020), I’ll note that neuroscience of language has been missing explicit representational theories about stored language knowledge—the ‘lexicon’—and that this has been blocking our progress on neuroanatomical models of syntax. The folk idea that language is a bunch of simple sound-to-meaning pairs (‘words’) is rooted deep in our collective psyche, and even when we publicly disavow it, ‘under the hood’ it continues to shape how we develop our neuroscience of language theories and how we reason about our experiments. Looking at some problematic cases in my own past work, I’ll argue that as a field we need to stop using vague/incoherent terminology like ‘word’ and ‘lexico-semantic’, and instead commit to sketching out explicit assumptions about how our rich language knowledge is organized every time we embark on an investigation of the neural basis of language production or comprehension.