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Cortical tracking of hierarchical linguistic structures in connected speech

Nature Neuroscience volume 19, pages 158164 (2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

The most critical attribute of human language is its unbounded combinatorial nature: smaller elements can be combined into larger structures on the basis of a grammatical system, resulting in a hierarchy of linguistic units, such as words, phrases and sentences. Mentally parsing and representing such structures, however, poses challenges for speech comprehension. In speech, hierarchical linguistic structures do not have boundaries that are clearly defined by acoustic cues and must therefore be internally and incrementally constructed during comprehension. We found that, during listening to connected speech, cortical activity of different timescales concurrently tracked the time course of abstract linguistic structures at different hierarchical levels, such as words, phrases and sentences. Notably, the neural tracking of hierarchical linguistic structures was dissociated from the encoding of acoustic cues and from the predictability of incoming words. Our results indicate that a hierarchy of neural processing timescales underlies grammar-based internal construction of hierarchical linguistic structure.

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Acknowledgements

We thank J. Walker for MEG technical support, T. Thesen, W. Doyle and O. Devinsky for their instrumental help in collecting ECoG data, and G. Buzsaki, G. Cogan, S. Dehaene, A.-L. Giraud, G. Hickok, N. Hornstein, E. Lau, A. Marantz, N. Mesgarani, M. Peña, B. Pesaran, L. Pylkkänen, C. Schroeder, J. Simon and W. Singer for their comments on previous versions of the manuscript. This work supported by US National Institutes of Health grant 2R01DC05660 (D.P.) and Major Projects Program of the Shanghai Municipal Science and Technology Commission (STCSM) 15JC1400104 (X.T.) and National Natural Science Foundation of China 31500914 (X.T.).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Psychology, New York University, New York, New York, USA.

    • Nai Ding
    • , Hang Zhang
    • , Xing Tian
    •  & David Poeppel
  2. College of Biomedical Engineering and Instrument Sciences, Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China.

    • Nai Ding
  3. Department of Neurology, New York University Langone Medical Center, New York, New York, USA.

    • Lucia Melloni
  4. Department of Neurophysiology, Max-Planck Institute for Brain Research, Frankfurt, Germany.

    • Lucia Melloni
  5. Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University, New York, New York, USA.

    • Lucia Melloni
  6. Department of Psychology and Beijing Key Laboratory of Behavior and Mental Health, Peking University, Beijing, China.

    • Hang Zhang
  7. PKU-IDG/McGovern Institute for Brain Research, Peking University, Beijing, China.

    • Hang Zhang
  8. Peking-Tsinghua Center for Life Sciences, Beijing, China.

    • Hang Zhang
  9. New York University Shanghai, Shanghai, China.

    • Xing Tian
  10. NYU-ECNU Institute of Brain and Cognitive Science at NYU Shanghai, Shanghai, China.

    • Xing Tian
  11. Neuroscience Department, Max-Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt, Germany.

    • David Poeppel

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Contributions

N.D., L.M. and D.P. conceived and designed the experiments. N.D., H.Z. and X.T. performed the MEG experiments. L.M. performed the ECoG experiment. N.D., L.M. and D.P. wrote the paper. All of the authors discussed the results and edited the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Nai Ding or David Poeppel.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nn.4186

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