Neurobiology of Language -
New PhD: Valeria Mongelli
An amazing property of human language is the ability to flexibly combine words in endlessly novel ways to compose structured sentences. These combinatorial operations are performed at the syntactic, phonological and semantic levels. When we form a sentence, e.g. The boy pulls the girl, we do not only combine together the meanings of boy, pull, girl. We also assign to each of these words a semantic role, i.e. we encode boy and girl as respectively the agent and the patient of the action. A long linguistic and philosophical tradition represented semantic roles as abstract semantic variables to whom assign particular words. How and at what level are semantic combinatorial operations performed in the brain? Crucially, can these operations occur in the absence of consciousness?
My work in the Neurobiology of Language group is intended to describe the neural correlates of combinatorial semantic processing. This work is jointly supervised by Peter Hagoort and Simon Van Gaal (Brain and Cognition Department - University of Amsterdam). I will conduct a series of EEG and fMRI visual masking studies in order to investigate the conscious and unconscious processing of sentence-level, semantic operations. These studies will try to establish whether the neural encoding of semantic roles necessarily requires consciousness.
My project will hopefully provide a better understanding of the causal relation between semantic combinatorial operations and consciousness. This will contribute to answer some open questions about the way human brain forms complex meanings.