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Auditory representations and phonological illusions: A linguist’s perspective on the neuropsychological bases of speech perception

This paper argues that speech perception includes grammatical—in particular phonological—computations implemented by an analysis-by-synthesis component (Halle & Stevens, 1962) which analyzes linguistic material by synthesizing it anew. Analysis-by-synthesis, however, is not always required in perception but only when the listener wants to be certain that the words or morphemes identified in the input signal correspond to those intended by the speaker who produced the signal (= parity requirements, see [Liberman, 1996] and [Liberman and Whalen, 2000]). As we will see, in some situation analysis-by-synthesis may generate ‘phonological’ illusions. A central assumption is that the representations of words or morphemes in perception involve distinctive features and are formally structured into syllables. Two perceptual modes are needed: phonetic and phonemic perception. In phonemic perception only contrastive aspects of sounds, i.e., the aspect of sounds associated with meaning differences, are searched for. In phonetic perception both contrastive and noncontrastive aspects of sounds are identified. The phenomenon of phonological ‘deafening’ will be shown to follow from phonemic perception.

from the Journal of Neurolinguistics

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From Language Comprehension to Action Understanding and Back Again

A controversial question in cognitive neuroscience is whether comprehension of words and sentences engages brain mechanisms specific for decoding linguistic meaning or whether language comprehension occurs through more domain-general sensorimotor processes. Accumulating behavioral and neuroimaging evidence suggests a role for cortical motor and premotor areas in passive action-related language tasks, regions that are known to be involved in action execution and observation. To examine the involvement of these brain regions in language and nonlanguage tasks, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) on a group of 21 healthy adults. During the fMRI session, all participants 1) watched short object-related action movies, 2) looked at pictures of man-made objects, and 3) listened to and produced short sentences describing object-related actions and man-made objects. Our results are among the first to reveal, in the human brain, a functional specialization within the ventral premotor cortex (PMv) for observing actions and for observing objects, and a different organization for processing sentences describing actions and objects. These findings argue against the strongest version of the simulation theory for the processing of action-related language.

from Cerebral Cortex

The role of mirror neurons in speech perception and action word semantics

The discovery of mirror neurons in the macaque monkey has ignited intense interest in motor theories of cognition, including speech and language. Here we examine two such claims, that the perception of speech sounds critically depends on motor representations of speech gestures (the motor theory of speech perception) and that the representation of action-related semantic knowledge critically depends on motor representations involved in performing actions. We conclude that there is strong evidence against the claim that speech perception critically depends on the motor system and that there is no conclusive evidence in support of the view that the motor system supports action semantics. We propose instead that motor-related activity during perceptual processes stem from spreading activation in sensory-motor networks that are critical for speech and language production.

from Language and Cognitive Processes

The role of mirror neurons in speech perception and action word semantics

The discovery of mirror neurons in the macaque monkey has ignited intense interest in motor theories of cognition, including speech and language. Here we examine two such claims, that the perception of speech sounds critically depends on motor representations of speech gestures (the motor theory of speech perception) and that the representation of action-related semantic knowledge critically depends on motor representations involved in performing actions. We conclude that there is strong evidence against the claim that speech perception critically depends on the motor system and that there is no conclusive evidence in support of the view that the motor system supports action semantics. We propose instead that motor-related activity during perceptual processes stem from spreading activation in sensory-motor networks that are critical for speech and language production.

from Language and Cognitive Processes

Mirror system activity for action and language is embedded in the integration of dorsal and ventral pathways

We develop the view that the involvement of mirror neurons in embodied experience grounds brain structures that underlie language, but that many other brain regions are involved. We stress the cooperation between the dorsal and ventral streams in praxis and language. Both have perceptual and motor schemas but the perceptual schemas in the dorsal path are affordances linked to specific motor schemas for detailed motor control, whereas the ventral path supports planning and decision making. This frames the hypothesis that the mirror system for words evolved from the mirror system for actions to support words-as-phonological-actions, with semantics provided by the linkage to neural systems supporting perceptual and motor schemas. We stress the importance of computational models which can be linked to the parametric analysis of data and conceptual analysis of these models to support new patterns of understanding of the data. In the domain of praxis, we assess the FARS model of the canonical system for grasping, the MNS models for the mirror system for grasping, and the Augmented Competitive Queuing model that extends the control of action to the opportunistic scheduling of action sequences and also offers a new hypothesis on the role of mirror neurons in self action. Turning to language, we use Construction Grammar as our linguistic framework to get beyond single words to phrases and sentences, and initiate analysis of what brain functions must complement mirror systems to support this functionality.

from Brain and Language

Motor-auditory-visual integration: The role of the human mirror neuron system in communication and communication disorders

The mirror neuron system (MNS) is a trimodal system composed of neuronal populations that respond to motor, visual, and auditory stimulation, such as when an action is performed, observed, heard or read about. In humans, the MNS has been identified using neuro-imaging techniques (such as fMRI and mu suppression in the EEG). It reflects an integration of motor-auditory-visual information processing related to aspects of language learning including action understanding and recognition. Such integration may also form the basis for language-related constructs such as theory of mind. In this article, we review the MNS system as it relates to the cognitive development of language in typically developing children and in children at-risk for communication disorders, such as children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) or hearing impairment. Studying MNS development in these children may help illuminate an important role of the MNS in children with communication disorders. Studies with deaf children are especially important because they offer potential insights into how the MNS is reorganized when one modality, such as audition, is deprived during early cognitive development, and this may have long-term consequences on language maturation and theory of mind abilities.

from the Journal of Communication Disorders

Are cortical motor maps based on body parts or coordinated actions? Implications for embodied semantics

The embodied cognition approach to the study of the mind proposes that higher order mental processes such as concept formation and language are essentially based on perceptual and motor processes. Contrary to the classical approach in cognitive science, in which concepts are viewed as amodal, arbitrary symbols, embodied semantics argues that concepts must be “grounded” in sensorimotor experiences in order to have meaning. In line with this view, neuroimaging studies have shown a roughly somatotopic pattern of activation along cortical motor areas (broadly construed) for the observation of actions involving different body parts, as well as for action-related language comprehension. These findings have been interpreted in terms of a mirror-neuron system, which automatically matches observed and executed actions. However, the somatotopic pattern of activation found in these studies is very coarse, with significant overlap between body parts, and sometimes with multiple representations for the same body part. Furthermore, the localization of the respective activations varies considerably across studies. Based on recent work on the motor cortex in monkeys, we suggest that these discrepancies result from the organization of the primate motor cortex (again, broadly construed), which probably includes maps of the coordinated actions making up the individual’s motor repertoire, rather than a single, continuous map of the body. We review neurophysiological and neuroimaging data supporting this hypothesis and discuss ways in which this framework can be used to further test the links between neural mirroring and linguistic processing.

from Brain and Language

The Role of Mirror Neurons in Processing Vocal Emotions: Evidence from Psychophysiological Data

Recent evidence suggests that the mirror neuron system may serve as a common neural substrate for processing motor, linguistic, emotional, and other higher-level cognitive information. The current study employed psychophysiological methods to elucidate the role of this system in processing vocal emotions. Skin conductance and heart rate were measured for 25 undergraduate students while they were both listening to emotional vocalizations and also thinking (internal production) about them. The results revealed changes in skin conductance response and heart rate during both “listening” and “thinking” conditions. This suggests an active role of the mirror neuron system in processing vocal emotions.

from the International Journal of Neuroscience

Mirror neurons, the representation of word meaning, and the foot of the third left frontal convolution

Previous neuroimaging research has attempted to demonstrate a preferential involvement of the human mirror neuron system (MNS) in the comprehension of effector-related action word (verb) meanings. These studies have assumed that Broca’s area (or Brodmann’s area 44) is the homologue of a monkey premotor area (F5) containing mouth and hand mirror neurons, and that action word meanings are shared with the mirror system due to a proposed link between speech and gestural communication. In an fMRI experiment, we investigated whether Broca’s area shows mirror activity solely for effectors implicated in the MNS. Next, we examined the responses of empirically determined mirror areas during a language perception task comprising effector-specific action words, unrelated words and nonwords. We found overlapping activity for observation and execution of actions with all effectors studied, i.e., including the foot, despite there being no evidence of foot mirror neurons in the monkey or human brain. These “mirror” areas showed equivalent responses for action words, unrelated words and nonwords, with all of these stimuli showing increased responses relative to visual character strings. Our results support alternative explanations attributing mirror activity in Broca’s area to covert verbalisation or hierarchical linearisation, and provide no evidence that the MNS makes a preferential contribution to comprehending action word meanings.

from Brain and Language