Under the direction of Dr. Maria M. Pinango, Ms. Petra Burkhardt will conduct a series of experiments for her doctoral dissertation. She will investigate how different types of pronominal elements (e.g., "him/her" and "himself/herself") are interpreted during sentence comprehension. The experiments will record event-related brain potentials (ERPs) while participants listen to sentences, focusing on the time when the pronominal is heard. The study explores how and when pronominals determine their referents. In contrast to full nouns (like "apple" or "dog"), pronominal elements do not have fully fledged meaning of their own. For instance, in a sentence like "The man said that Mary called him," "him" may mean "the man."
This research connects important questions in linguistics (regarding the architecture of the language system), computer science (regarding dynamic implementation of formal systems, specifically pronominal resolution) and neuroscience (regarding cortical distribution of language). The research will have implications for the study of brain and cognition relations, as it addresses the reasons that the representation of these referentially deficient elements is particularly vulnerable in certain neurological diseases (e.g., Alzheimer's, Schizophrenia) and cerebro-vascular syndromes (e.g., Aphasia). The project will also provide an opportunity for undergraduate students to receive research training, and it will foster interaction between researchers in the cognitive neuroscience community at Yale University.