Overview: Lab philosophy
Research in our lab seeks to understand cognitive, neural, and affective aspects of human language processing. We primarily focus on fundamental/basic science, but our work is motivated by real-world problems (such as language impairments) and we strive for translational impact and ecological validity in our research.
We also try to improve and expand the set of tools available to cognitive neuroscientists and neuropsychologists. This includes statistical methods for analysis of time course data (GCA) and for correction for multiple comparisons in lesion-symptom mapping (cFWER; see also our recent book on LSM methods), and a large web-based database to facilitate the use of cognitive neuropsychological methods in the study of language and cognition (MAPPD).
Current projects apply these tenets to several inter-related research projects:
Processing and representation of semantic knowledge
We have a long-standing interest in the distinction between taxonomic information about an object (that an apple is a fruit, that it is the same kind of thing as a pear or a peach, that it is round and edible, etc.), and the events or situations in which they participate, which tell us thematic information about the object (that apples grow on trees and ripen in the fall, that they can be baked into pies or made into cider, that they sometimes have worms inside, etc.). Our recent systematic review brought together behavioral, computational, and neuroscience evidence that taxonomic and thematic semantic systems are distinct and proposed neuro-computational principles that may drive this distinction (Mirman, Landrigan, & Britt, 2017). Of particular focus is the "dual-hub" hypothesis that the anterior temporal lobes are specialised for taxonomic processing while the temporo-parietal cortex is specialised for thematic processing (e.g., Schwartz et al., 2011; Thye et al., 2021). We are delving deeper into this distinction to try to understand its functional basis and the reason for the apparent neuroanatomic specialization.
Understanding and producing narratives
Most real-world language use happens in a discourse or narrative context -- telling a story, having a conversation, reading/hearing a story or watching a film. Fluent communication is especially important to people with post-stroke aphasia and our recent aphasia research has focused on identifying the behavioural and neural components of fluency deficits in aphasia (Mirman et al., 2019; Zevgolatakou et al., 2023). Ongoing work is examining functional communication and production of discourse-relevant information in aphasia. On the comprehension side, current projects are using natualistic neuroimaging methods to examine neural responses to different types of content in larger narratives such as audiobooks and full-length films.
Aesthetic pleasure of metaphors and other poetic language
There is a striking parallel between literary critical analysis and psycholinguistic models of language comprehension: in both, a reader is to uncover the correct meaning of a text. Yet, poetic language – with its ambiguity, allusions, and novel metaphors – resists this kind of decoding. This makes poetic language difficult, but it is often deeply pleasurable. Our current research is examining this relationship between difficulty and pleasure (Errington et al., 2022) and their neural correlates during reading metaphors and poems. We are also evaluating whether reading for pleasure (and other arts engagement) has benefits for mental health and well-being. Our long-term goal is to develop a neurocognitive model of how poems (and figurative language more generally) evoke a pleasure response, and the implications this has for creative writing, education, and mental health and wellbeing.
These projects are not currently active, but remain interests in the lab:
Lesion-symptom mapping the organization of the spoken language system
Word learning, plasticity, and aphasia recovery
Competition and cooperation among co-activated representations, and the role of cognitive control in spoken language