Synergy Grant

As already apparent from the initiated projects both in the first phase of our consortium as well as in the Big Questions, the setup of our internal calls leads to exciting new research endeavours forming a dense network of new collaborations spanning and integrating many fields in language research.

In 2018, LiI issued an open, external Synergy Call to further trigger and reward research that is new, collaborative, innovative, interdisciplinary, cutting edge and more than “business as usual”. The Call for Proposals offered two 4-year Synergy Grants to teams of 2 researchers at an early or more advanced phase after finishing a PhD program. The research teams had to submit an interdisciplinary, joint research proposal that has the potential to provide insights synergistically that go beyond independent individual projects. The research proposal had to describe the scientific and technical aspects of the 4-year collaborative research project, demonstrating the ground-breaking nature of the research, its potential impact and research methodology. All applications had to be provided within the constraint that the interdisciplinary research topic should be related to one or more of the five BQs that are the core of the LiI research programme.

After carefull judgement of all submitted proposals by the Assessment Committee based on the preset criteria, our Scientific Board finally granted one Synergy proposal submitted by Dr. Arjen Stolk and Dr. Jana Basnakova.

Communication in Context

A major challenge of understanding the human language faculty is to account for the extreme flexibility with which humans employ our words and gestures in everyday communicative interactions. Humans seem to be endowed with a remarkable ability to rapidly find relevant context for selecting and interpreting mutually understood communicative behaviours. This synergy project aims to understand what counts as context and how that context determines the meaning of an utterance. In four interrelated projects, the notion will be tested that a large portion of the context is contingent on the shared cognitive space implied by the ongoing interaction between interlocutors. To test this notion, first neural mechanisms will be identified critically supporting a shared cognitive space by having people interact in novel communicative settings minimizing the need for the use of pre-existing shared representations. Simultaneously, population-level neural activity will be recorded from neurosurgical patient pairs (dual-EEG, subproject 1), and the causal nature of the mechanistic insights using electrical brain stimulation (EBS, subproject 2) tested. Then it will be examined whether and how the shared cognitive space interacts with linguistic material and gestures to constrain the meaning of utterances during controlled dialogs. This is achieved by measuring neurocognitive processing while quantitatively varying the strength of conflicting semantic constraints on the communicative meaning of verbal and gestural utterances (fMRI and eye-tracking, subprojects 3 and 4). The causal nature of processes thought to promote and arbitrate between communicative and semantic constraints will be tested using Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS, subproject 3) and additional neuroimaging in autistic patients. As a whole, this synergy project will characterize a fundamental and evolutionary unique ability of our species, opening the way for understanding and treating disorders of communicative language use.

Work will commence from September 2019 onward.