[UMR] Emiliano Zaccarella (Max Planck Institute, Leipzig)
UPS Pouchet, salle 159
Breaking down complexity:
The neural basis of the syntactic merge mechanism in the human brain
The unbounded expressive capacity of human language cannot boil down to an infinite list of sentences stored in a finite brain. Our linguistic knowledge is rather grounded around a rule-based universal syntactic computation—called Merge—which takes categorized units in input (e.g. this and ship), and generates structures by binding words recursively into more complex hierarchies of any length (e.g. this ship; this ship sinks…). Here we present data from different fMRI datasets probing the cortical implementation of this fundamental process. We first pushed complexity down to a three-word level, to explore how Merge creates minimally hierarchical phrases and sentences. We then moved to the most fundamental two-word level, to directly assess the universal invariant nature of Merge, when no additive mechanisms are involved. Our most general finding is that Merge as the basic syntactic operation is primarily performed by confined area, namely BA 44 in the IFG. Activity reduces to its most ventral-anterior portion at the most fundamental level, following fine-grained sub-anatomical parcellation proposed for the region. The deep frontal operculum/anterior-dorsal insula (FOP/adINS), a phylogenetically older and less specialized region, rather appears to support word-accumulation processing in which the categorical information of the word is first accessed based on its lexical status, and then maintained on hold before further processing takes place. The present data confirm the general notion of BA 44 being activated as a function of complex structural hierarchy, but they go beyond this view by proposing that structural sensitivity in BA 44 is already appreciated at the lowest levels of complexity during which minimal phrase-structures are build up, and syntactic Merge is assessed. Further, they call for a redefinition of BA 44 from multimodal area to a macro-region with internal localizable functional profiles.
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