In 2018, LiI issued an open external Synergy Call to further trigger and reward innovative, interdisciplinary, and more than “business as usual” research. One proposal was granted and the project “Communication in Context” started in the fall of 2019.
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 careful judgement of all submitted proposals by the Assessment Committee based on the preset criteria, our Scientific Board granted one Synergy proposal submitted by Dr. Arjen Stolk and Dr. Jana Basnakova, which started in the fall of 2019:
Communication in Context
A major challenge of understanding the human language faculty is to account for the extreme flexibility with which humans employ their words and gestures in everyday communicative interactions. We 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. Neural mechanisms will be identified that critically support a shared cognitive space by having people interact in novel communicative settings that minimize the need for the use of pre-existing shared representations. In subproject 1, neural activity will be recorded from neurosurgical patient pairs (dual-EEG), and the causal nature of the mechanistic insights using electrical brain stimulation will be tested.
In subproject 2, using dual-fMRI, we will examine the possibility that impaired communication and interaction skills in individuals with ASD are caused by difficulties in using the conceptual space defined by an ongoing interaction. This may impair individuals in resolving the pervasive ambiguity of human communicative signals.
In subprojects 3 and 4 we will focus on 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 (fMRI and eye-tracking) while quantitatively varying the strength of conflicting semantic constraints on the communicative meaning of verbal and gestural utterances. The causal nature of processes thought to promote and arbitrate between communicative and semantic constraints will be tested using TMS 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.
Progress in 2019
The project is in its initial phase, having started in September 2019. We have prepared and piloted the dual-fMRI setup for subproject 2 and developed a verbal paradigm to be used with ASD and neurotypical participants in subproject 2, which we are piloting using eye-tracking and fMRI. We have applied and obtained the approval of the CMO for subprojects 2 and 3 with neurotypical and ASD participants.