Language structure in the brain: A fixation-related fMRI study of syntactic surprisal in reading

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How is syntactic analysis implemented by the human brain during language comprehension? The current study combined methods from computational linguistics, eyetracking, and fMRI to address this question. Subjects read passages of text presented as paragraphs while their eye movements were recorded in an MRI scanner. We parsed the text using a probabilistic context-free grammar to isolate syntactic difficulty. Syntactic difficulty was quantified as syntactic surprisal, which is related to the expectedness of a given word's syntactic category given its preceding context. We compared words with high and low syntactic surprisal values that were equated for length, frequency, and lexical surprisal, and used fixation-related (FIRE) fMRI to measure neural activity associated with syntactic surprisal for each fixated word. We observed greater neural activity for high than low syntactic surprisal in two predicted cortical regions previously identified with syntax: left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) and less robustly, left anterior superior temporal lobe (ATL). These results support the hypothesis that left IFG and ATL play a central role in syntactic analysis during language comprehension. More generally, the results suggest a broader cortical network associated with syntactic prediction that includes increased activity in bilateral IFG and insula, as well as fusiform and right lingual gyri.

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