The Bones of Cognition

Complexity and Structure in Language, Cognition and Brain

Ken Ramshøj Christensen, Aarhus University, Denmark.

(Post doc. project 02.2007-01.2010)

The project will investigate the relationship between language, cognition, and brain. One of the hallmarks of both language and cognition is structure dependency and varying degrees of structural complexity.

Briefly, there are two approaches to linguistics, functional and formal linguistics. According to the functional approach, communicative function determines the structure of language. The formal approach, on the other hand, claims that syntax (grammar) is an autonomous module and that linguistic structure can be characterised independent of function. There is thus disagreement on whether syntax and structure are domain-specific. The most recent formal approach, Minimalism, however, strives to reduce the domain-specific formal properties of language.

In cognitive neuroscience there is a debate on whether the brain is one big domain-non-specific uniform network or whether it is a network of specialised centres and to what extent such centres are domain-specific (this corresponds to some extent to the functional vs. formal debate in linguistics). By examining structure dependency and structural complexity in different symbolic systems, from numbers and words to complex sentences, the project will shed light on whether structure dependency and structural complexity are general features of cognitive or whether they are one or more domain-specific autonomous systems, and whether they activate the same area(s) in the brain. Here the project will focus particularly on the areas in and around the classical language areas, namely, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, which have been found to be central to the brain’s predictions about incoming information (a principle called Anticipatory Set, Predictive Coding, or Top-Down Parsing). Thus, it will also be investigated whether the functions of these areas are domain-specific. Because structure dependency and structural complexity are to a large extend based on linguistic structure, the project will also show whether linguistic theory and analytic methodology can be applied to studies of other domains: Language as a window to brain and cognition. Furthermore, if structure dependency and structural complexity are general features of cognition, they can be viewed as the bones of cognition and if it turns out that Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area are the centres that implement them, Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area can be considered the motor cortex of cognition parallel to the motor cortex controlling the likewise structured movements of the body.

Project ended January 31, 2010.

The project was financed by