The Department of Neuroscience

The neuroscience department works primarily on the neurobiological foundations of speech perception, language processing, auditory cognition, and music, including the dimensions of aesthetic experience. The main methods employed include electrophysiological recordings using magnetoencephalography (MEG), electroencephalography (EEG), and electrocorticography (ECoG), as well as imaging studies using structural and functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Our neuroscience-focused studies typically include a wide range of behavioral and psychophysical approaches, as well. In general, the approach is one of “methodological pluralism” – that is to say, we use the methodology is most suited to address a given question. The research questions are motivated by issues arising from neurobiology, psychology, and theoretical, computational, and psycholinguistics.    

The cognitive neurosciences of language and music face empirical and theoretical challenges. Most current research, dominated by neuroimaging and electrophysiological techniques, seeks to identify regions that underpin aspects of processing (such as phonology, syntax, or semantics in language; or rhythm and timbre in music). The emphasis lies primarily on localization of function and characterization of electrophysiological response properties. There exist practical challenges that arise in the context of such a research program, for example obtaining the highest resolution data to generate adequate functional anatomic maps. This “maps problem” concerns the extent to which functional anatomy ultimately satisfies the explanatory needs for perception and cognition. The neural bases of speech, language, and music are, notably, typically discussed in those terms (i.e. local brain regions, processing streams, cerebral hemispheres, cortical networks).

The second challenge is more formidable, namely how to formulate the links between neurobiology and cognition. How do we characterize the relation between the primitives (or the elementary parts) of speech, language, or music and the primitives of neurobiology? Dealing with this “mapping problem” invites the development of linking hypotheses. The cognitive sciences provide granular, theoretically motivated claims about the structure of various domains (the “primitives” or the “cognome” or the “parts list”); neurobiology, similarly, provides a parts list of the available neural structures and functions. However, explanatory connections will require crafting computationally explicit linking hypotheses at the right level of granularity.

For both the practical “maps problem” and the principled “mapping problem”, embracing interdisciplinary approaches and sources of evidence helps formulate better hypotheses to understand how the brain makes possible language and music, two of the most fundamental aspects of human experience.