The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

BCS Cog Lunch-Tues 3/15-Ev Fedorenko

Speaker: Ev Fedorenko (MIT BCS)
Title: The power of individual subject analyses in investigating the functional architecture of the language system
Time: Tuesday 3/15 at noon
Location: 46-3189

Language is our signature human cognitive skill and one of the most studied. Yet many fundamental questions about how language is implemented in the brain remain unanswered. I have previously argued that at least part of the difficulty in making progress may be due to an almost exclusive reliance on traditional group analyses in neuroimaging studies of language. Because of anatomical differences across individual brains, such methods are bound to underestimate functional specificity and may thus obscure true functional organization. Furthermore, group-based methods make it difficult to compare results across studies and accumulate knowledge about the functional profiles of the relevant brain regions. In recent work (Fedorenko et al., 2010), we developed methods for defining key language-sensitive regions in each individual brain, enabling us to launch a research program aimed at carefully characterizing the profiles of each of these brain regions, with the ultimate goal of understanding the representations and the computations that enable us to produce and understand language. In this talk, I will first address the question of whether language-sensitive regions (including the classical Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas) also support non-linguistic processes that have been argued to share cognitive and neural machinery with language. I will show that these brain regions respond very little to a wide range of non-linguistic tasks, including arithmetic, domain-general working memory, domain-general cognitive control, and music. I will then present some preliminary findings from two other lines of work. First, I will describe a study investigating the relationship between the language system and abstract conceptual processing. And second, I will present preliminary results from ongoing experiments that are attempting to identify the precise linguistic computations conducted in each region.