AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 26, Number 1, 2017

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Researchers Find Internal Grammar in the Brain

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Research published in a recent issue of Nature Neuroscience supports Noam Chomsky’s theory from 1957 that humans have an internal grammar mechanism that underlies our processing of language and allows us to make sense of nonsensical strings of words. Neuroscientists and psychologists predominantly reject this viewpoint, contending that our comprehension does not result from an internal grammar; rather, it is based on both statistical calculations between words and sound cues to structure. In an effort to put this debate to rest, the researchers explored whether and how linguistic units are represented in the brain during speech comprehension. The results of the study showed that participants’ brains distinctly tracked three components of the phrases they heard during a set of experiments, reflecting a hierarchy in our neural processing of linguistic structures: words, phrases and then sentences — at the same time. “Because we went to great lengths to design experimental conditions that control for statistical or sound cue contributions to processing, our findings show that we must use the grammar in our head,” explained the lead researcher. “Our brains lock onto every word before working to comprehend phrases and sentences. The dynamics reveal that we undergo a grammar-based construction in the processing of language.” This is a controversial conclusion from the perspective of current research, the researchers noted, because the notion of abstract, hierarchical, grammar-based structure building is rather unpopular. To read more about this study, click here.

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