The neural oscillations of sentence processing

14.06.2017 - 17:00
14.06.2017 - 19:00

Dr. Lars Meyer

Dept. of Neuropsychologie, Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig

The processing of sentences relies heavily on working memory operations: Words in speech are chunked into syntactic phrases; phrases are stored to be linked to upcoming phrases; stored phrases are retrieved during linking. In my research, I investigate the underlying electrophysiology, focusing on neural oscillations. Neural oscillations represent periodic fluctuations in the membrane potentials of neuronal groups—whose amplitude and phase properties in the scalp electroencephalogram index basic mechanisms of neural information processing and transmission, such as excitation, inhibition, and synchronization. In my talk, I will illustrate how the human brain employs neural oscillations to chunk, store, and retrieve syntactic information: Individual syntactic phrasing decisions are determined by an alignment between delta-band oscillatory cycles and syntactic phrases, implicitly driving neural excitability towards syntactic information. The storage of syntactic phrases is supported by functional inhibition of working memory-related cortices through changes in the power of alpha-band oscillations. Retrieval of phrases during linking is supported by synchronization of theta-band oscillations across the cortical language network. My results provide the conceptualization of sentence processing as a sophisticated working memory skill with an electrophysiologically realistic substrate, suggesting that sentence processing taps into basic mechanisms of information processing that are common across domains.