Big Question 3

Creating a shared cognitive space: How is language grounded in and shaped by communicative settings of interacting people?

Language is a key socio-cognitive human function predominantly used in interaction. Yet, linguistics and cognitive neuroscience have largely focused on individuals coding-decoding signals according to their structural dependencies. Understanding the communicative use of language requires shifting the focus of investigation to the mechanisms used by interlocutors to share a conceptual space.

This project will experimentally manipulate and computationally define the complex cognitive space in which interlocutors operate during live communicative interactions. This space is characterized along two constitutive dimensions. First, we consider the temporal structure of communicative interactions, in which an interlocutor can respond to a signal occurring at any time along the interaction’s trajectory, irrespective of ordering or syntax. This project tackles these complexities by considering the full temporal range of a dialogue, from rapid switching of turns (sub-second timescale) to mutual adjustment of discourse models (minute timescale). Second, we consider the functional dynamics of real-life communicative interactions. The creation of a shared conceptual space across communicators (alignment) is often intermingled with the interlocutors’ exploitation of that space for asserting individual opinions (asymmetry). This project considers the influence of those two dimensions over multiple communicative resources (speech, gestures, gaze) and linguistic structures (from phonology to pragmatics). (Para)linguistic features extracted from structured live interactions of human interlocutors will be used to define the computational architecture, inferential processes, and neurobiological mechanisms implementing the creation and control of a shared cognitive space. We will track how neural markers of individual interlocutors’ representations become aligned during the real-life dialogue, which model properties are required to accommodate interlocutors’ use of (para)linguistic features, and explain how different linguistic structures are coordinated into a communicative signal.

People involved


Ivan Toni

Team Members

Harold Bekkering
Mark Blokpoel
Jan Buitelaar
Mark Dingemanse
Christian Döller
Mirjam Ernestus
Raquel Fernandez
Johan Kwisthout
Shiri Lev-Ari
Stephen Levinson
Pieter Medendorp
Pieter Muysken
Asli Ozyurek
Iris van Rooij
Robert van Rooij
Herbert Schriefers
Jakub Szymanik