Sophie Arana

Biography

I hold a bachelor's degree in German Linguistics & Literature (Freie Universit├Ąt Berlin) and a MSc in Cognitive Neuroscience (Radboud University Nijmegen) and am now continuing at the intercept of linguistics and cognitive neuroscience through my current PhD work at the MPI.

My research focuses on the neural and cognitive mechanisms underlying integration of linguistic cues during sentence comprehension. A remarkable capability of the human language system is that we can generate meaning beyond the single word level by combining words in ever new and infinite ways. Integration of syntactic and semantic cues is necessary to derive abstract structure such as hierarchical phrase structure beyond linear word order or abstract semantic categories beyond individual word meaning such as agent, patient and so forth.

One approach to studying higher-level language processing is to compare processing across different input modalities. I applied multivariate analysis techniques to Magnetoencephalography (MEG) data of 200 subjects either reading or listening to sentences. MEG provides the high temporal resolution needed for characterizing a dynamic, temporally unfolding process such as online sentence comprehension. Pairing this high temporal resolution with the appropriate source reconstruction algorithm and multivariate statistical analysis methods we identified a widespread left-lateralized brain network, including temporal lobe and prefrontal cortex, to be implicated in modality-independent language processing.

In another approach, I combine MEG with multivariate pattern analysis, with the aim of more directly probing specific types of higher-level representations. In order to decode neural representations of abstract syntactic structure, I recorded MEG while participants were reading noun- and verb-attached prepositional phrases such as "The pedestrian shot/saw the cop with the revolver". If our brains encode abstract syntactic dependencies independent from specific semantic information, we should be able to differentiate between verb- and noun attached phrases across a large variety of sentences based on brain activation patterns. Contrary to previous accounts, we did not find evidence for a neural representation of abstract structure in the case of prepositional phrase attachment.

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