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Prediction during natural language comprehension

Willems, R. M., Frank, S. L., Nijhoff, A. D., Hagoort, P., & Van den Bosch, A. (2016). Prediction during natural language comprehension. Cerebral Cortex, 26(6), 2506-2516. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhv075.
The notion of prediction is studied in cognitive neuroscience with increasing intensity. We investigated the neural basis of 2 distinct aspects of word prediction, derived from information theory, during story comprehension. We assessed the effect of entropy of next-word probability distributions as well as surprisal. A computational model determined entropy and surprisal for each word in 3 literary stories. Twenty-four healthy participants listened to the same 3 stories while their brain activation was measured using fMRI. Reversed speech fragments were presented as a control condition. Brain areas sensitive to entropy were left ventral premotor cortex, left middle frontal gyrus, right inferior frontal gyrus, left inferior parietal lobule, and left supplementary motor area. Areas sensitive to surprisal were left inferior temporal sulcus (“visual word form area”), bilateral superior temporal gyrus, right amygdala, bilateral anterior temporal poles, and right inferior frontal sulcus. We conclude that prediction during language comprehension can occur at several levels of processing, including at the level of word form. Our study exemplifies the power of combining computational linguistics with cognitive neuroscience, and additionally underlines the feasibility of studying continuous spoken language materials with fMRI.

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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

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