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Linguistics Colloquium Series: Ellen Lau - Sequences, syntax, and scenes: towards the neural underpinnings of working memory for language comprehension

When: Friday, October 9, 2020
3:30 PM - 5:30 PM  

Where: Online

Audience: Faculty/Staff - Student - Public - Post Docs/Docs - Graduate Students

Contact: Talant Abdykairov   847.467.3384

Group: Linguistics Department

Category: Academic


As linguists, one thing many of us would love to get from neuroscience studies of language is some insight into how the structured, relational representations constructed during language use are neurally implemented. This would be of value not just for theories of cognitive neuroscience, but also for theories of linguistic knowledge, and of non-linguistic semantic knowledge. But since language comprehension and production are incremental processes spread across time, this amounts to a question about the neural encoding of working memory representations, for which even the most basic principles are still debated in neuroscience. We also have to grapple with the heritage of Alan Baddeley's influential cognitive psychology model of working memory, which usefully emphasized the existence of multiple, independent working memory systems, but which unintentionally led many observers to equate verbal working memory with sequence memory. In cognitive neuroscience of language, I think our first steps should be to distinguish the properties of the working memory representations we need to account for and to articulate some boundary conditions on how they are likely to be neurally implemented. In this talk, I'll outline what I take to be at least three core working memory circuits for language comprehension, each with a data format and neural implementation informed by functional considerations: (1) a posterior temporal - frontal circuit that buffers phonological-articulatory information in sequence format, (2) a posterior middle temporal region that could support both long-term memory for individual lexical-syntactic units and working memory for the syntactic relations, and (3) an anterior temporal - inferior parietal circuit that buffers semantic information in a multi-dimensional 'scene' format. As (1) follows from a longstanding existing cognitive neuroscience literature on the phonological loop, much of my discussion will focus on the syntactic and semantic representations in (2) and (3). 

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