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Conflict and surrender during sentence processing: An ERP study of syntax-semantics interaction

Recent ERP studies report that implausible verb-argument combinations can elicit a centro-parietal P600 effect (e.g., “The hearty meal was devouring …”; Kim & Osterhout, 2005). Such eliciting conditions do not involve outright syntactic anomaly, deviating from previous reports of P600. Kim and Osterhout (2005) attributed such P600 effects to structural reprocessing that occurs when syntactic cues fail to support a semantically attractive interpretation (‘meal’ as the Agent of ‘devouring’) and the syntactic cues are overwhelmed; the sentence is therefore perceived as syntactically ill-formed. The current study replicated such findings and also found that altering the syntactic cues in such situations of syntax-semantics conflict (e.g., “The hearty meal would devour …”) affects the conflict’s outcome. P600s were eliminated when sentences contained syntactic cues that required multiple morphosyntactic steps to “repair”. These sentences elicited a broad, left-anterior negativity at 300–600 ms (LAN). We interpret the reduction in P600 amplitude in terms of “resistance” of syntactic cues to reprocessing. We speculate that the LAN may be generated by difficulty retrieving an analysis that satisfies both syntactic and semantic cues, which results when syntactic cues are strong enough to resist opposing semantic cues. This pattern of effects is consistent with partially independent but highly interactive syntactic and semantic processing streams, which often operate collaboratively but can compete for influence over interpretation.

from Brain and Language

Language disorders in children with central nervous system injury

Children with injury to the central nervous system (CNS) exhibit a variety of language disorders that have been described by members of different disciplines, in different journals, using different descriptors and taxonomies. This paper is an overview of language deficits in children with CNS injury, whether congenital or acquired after a period of normal development. It first reviews the principal CNS conditions associated with language disorders in childhood. It then describes a functional taxonomy of language, with examples of the phenomenology and neurobiology of clinical deficits in children with CNS insults. Finally, it attempts to situate language in the broader realm of cognition and in current theoretical accounts of embodied cognition.

from the Journal of Clinical and Experimental Neurophysiology

Syntax without language: Neurobiological evidence for cross-domain syntactic computations

Not all conceivable grammars are realized within human languages. Rules based on rigid distances, in which a certain word must occur at a fixed distance from another word, are never found in grammars of human languages. Distances between words are specified in terms of relative, non-rigid positions. The left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) (Broca’s area) has been found to be involved in the computation of non-rigid but not of rigid syntax in the language domain. A fundamental question is therefore whether the neural activity underlying this non-rigid architecture is language-specific, given that analogous structural properties can be found in other cognitive domains. Using event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) in sixteen healthy native speakers of Italian, we measured brain activity for the acquisition of rigid and non-rigid syntax in the visuo-spatial domain. The data of the present experiment were formally compared with those of a previous experiment, in which there was a symmetrical distinction between rigid and non-rigid syntax in the language domain. Both in the visuo-spatial and in the language domain, the acquisition of non-rigid syntax, but not the acquisition of rigid syntax, activated Brodmann Area 44 of the left IFG. This domain-independent effect was specifically modulated by performance improvement. Thus, in the human brain, one single “grammar without words” serves different higher cognitive functions.

from Cortex