26 Bedford Way
Div of Psychology & Lang Sciences
Overarching Research Goal
To understand the neurobiology of natural language use.
Face-to-face communication is accompanied by an abundance of contextual information relevant to understanding, including both sensory information external to the listener (e.g., observed mouth movements and co-speech gestures) and knowledge or expectations internal to the listener (e.g., discourse context). Most behavioral and neurobiological research of language, however, discards context in favor of studying isolated speech sounds or words. In contrast, the long-term objective of my research is to understand the neural mechanisms of communication in real-world social settings in which the brain evolved, develops, and normally functions. This research is guided by a theoretical model of communication in which the brain actively makes use of context to aid in speech perception and language comprehension by using this information to generate predictions about forthcoming sensory patterns to constrain linguistic interpretation. I combine novel analysis techniques with behavioral and neuroimaging methods, including functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and source localized magneto- (MEG) and electroencephalography (EEG), to test and continue to elaborate this model. By doing so, my research has resulted in theoretical advances with respect to understanding how the brain makes use of naturally occurring context and methodological advances that permit the analysis multimodal data resulting from real-world stimuli.
Doctor of Philosophy
|University of Chicago|
As an undergraduate, I majored in philosophy and psychology. My interest in skeptical approaches to language and science (e.g., Wittgenstein, 1953; Feyerabend, 1975) and neurobiological approaches to studying behavior led me to pursue graduate training in cognition and cognitive neuroscience at The University of Chicago. Using primary functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), my graduate research took two directions. The first explored the neurophysiological mechanisms underlying speech perception and language comprehension, specifically looking at how the brain uses observable contexts like mouth movements and gestures to enhance understanding. This work led to a novel finding – the motor system plays a critical role in making use of observable actions pertinent to understanding communicative intent. This led me to pursue experiments related to the basic physiology of the motor system so as to better understand these brain systems. The second direction is reflected in research I conducted that explored how the brain makes use of other forms of context, including phonetic, prosodic, syntactic, emotional and social context. To support both directions, I helped develop a computational infrastructure and novel statistical analyses necessary to work with neurobiological data from more naturalistic stimuli. After graduate school I took a Postdoctoral Fellowship at Rutgers University in order to pursue research on how the brain processes coordinated behavior between multiple people. When the lab moved overseas the following year, I became a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Weill Medical College of Cornell University. While there I wrote and was awarded a large National Institute of Health grant called the “Neurobiology of Speech Perception in Real-World Contexts” (NIH-NICHD K99/R00 HD060307). This award provided further training that allowed me to extend my graduate training in two significant ways. First, I learned to conduct research with methodologies that are more temporally sensitive, specifically, electroencephalography (EEG), with a focus on EEG source localization and multimodal imaging (combining EEG and fMRI). Second I gained expertise in conducting developmental research with young children, including EEG and fMRI pediatric studies. Following these Postdoctoral Fellowships, I took a job at Hamilton College as an Assistant Professor. Hamilton College is one of the best liberal arts teaching colleges in the United States and, while I was there, I learned to teach well. In addition, I wrote and was awarded a National Science Foundation Major Research Instrumentation Grant (NS-MRI BCS-1126549) called “MRI: Acquisition of Neuroimaging Equipment For Acquiring 4-Dimensional Brain Data From Real-World Stimuli”. This award allowed me to purchase a high density EEG system and continue the adult and developmental research associated with the aforementioned NIH grant. I left Hamilton in 2013 to became a Lecturer at the University College London (UCL) where I continue to study the neurobiology of natural language use.