I was going to do something grand in praise of the paper I mentioned in an earlier post by Nai Ding, Lucia Melloni, Hang Zhang, Xiang Tian and David Poeppel (DMZTP) in
Nature Neurosceince (here). However, wiser heads have beaten me to the punch (see the comments sections here). Still, as Morris Halle once noted, we here discuss not the news but the truth, and with a mitigated version of this dictum in mind, I want to throw in my 2 cents (which in Canada, where I am writing this now, would amount to exactly 0 cents, given the recent abandonment of the penny (all amounts are rounded to nearest 0)). So here is my summary judgment (recall, I AM NO EXPERT IN THESE MATTERS!!!). It is the best neurolinguistics paper I have ever read. IMO, it goes one step beyond even the best neuro-ling papers in outlining a possible (as in ‘potential’) mechanism for a linguistically relevant phenomenon. Let me explain.
The standard good neuroling paper takes linguistically motivated categories and tries to localize them in brain geography. We saw an example of this in the Frankland and Greene paper wrt “theta roles” (see here and here) and in the Pallier et. al. paper for Merge (see here). There are many other fine examples of this kind of work (see comment section here for other many good references). However, at least to me, these papers generally don’t show (and even don’t even aim to show) how brains accomplish some cognitive task but try to locate where in the brain it is being discharged. DMZTP also plays the brain geography game, but aims for more. Let me elaborate.
DMZTP accomplishes several things.
First, it uncovers brain indices of hierarchy building. How does it do this? It isolates a brain measure of on-line sentence parsing, a measure that “entrains” to (correlates with) to linguistically relevant hierarchy independently of prosodic and statistical properties of the input. DMZTP assume, as any sane person would, that if brains entrain to G relevant categories during comprehension then these brains contain knowledge of the relevant categories and structures. In other words, one cannot use knowledge that one does not have (cannot entrain to data structures that are not contained in the brain). So, the paper provides evidence that brains can track linguistically significant categories and rationally concludes that the brain does so whenever confronted with linguistic input (i.e. not only in artificial experimental conditions required to prove the claim, but reflexively does this whenever linguistic material is presented to it).
Showing this is no easy matter. It requires controlling for all other sorts of factors. The two prominent ones that DMZTP controls for are prosodic features of speech and the statistical properties of sub-sentential inputs. Now, there is little doubt that speech comprehension exploits both prosodic and statistical factors in parsing incoming linguistic input. The majority opinion in the cog-neuro of language is that such features are all that the brain uses. Indeed, many assume that brains are structurally incompatible with grammatical rules (you know, neural nets don’t do representations) that build hierarchical structures of the kind that GGers have been developing over the last 60 years. Of course, such skepticism is ridiculous. We have scads of behavioral evidence that linguistic objects are hierarchically organized and that speakers know this and use this on line. And if dualism is false (and neuro types love to rail against silly Cartesians who don’t understand that there are no ghosts (at least in brains)), then this immediately and immaculately implies that brains code for such hierarchical dependencies as well. DMZTP recognizes this (and does not interpret its results Falkland&Greenishly i.e. as finally establishing some weak-kneed hair brained linguistic’s conjecture). If so, the relevant question is not whether this is so, but how it is, and this resolves into a series of other related questions: (i) What are the neural indices of brain sensitivity to hierarchy? (ii) What parts of the brain generate these neural markers? (iii) How is this hierarchical information coded in neural tissue? and (iv) How do brains coordinate the various kinds of linguistic hierarchical information in online activities? These are hard question. How does DMZTP contribute to answering them?
DMZTP shows that different brain frequencies track three different linguistically relevant levels: syllables, phrases and sentences. In particular, DMZTP shows
that cortical dynamics emerge at all timescales required for the processing of different linguistic levels, including the timescales corresponding to larger linguistic structures such as phrases and sentences, and that the neural representation of each linguistic level corresponds to timescales matching the timescales of the respective linguistic level (1).
Not surprisingly, the relevant frequencies go from shorter to longer. Moreover, the paper shows that the frequency responses can only be accounted for by assuming that the brain exploits “lexical, semantic and syntactic knowledge” and cannot be explained in terms of the brain’s simply tracking prosodic or statistical information in the signal.
The tracking is actually very sensitive. One of the nicest features of DMZTP is that it shows how “cortical responses” change as phrasal structure changes. Bigger sentences and phrases provide different (yet similar) profiles to shorter ones (see figure 4). In other words, DMZTP identifies neural correlates that track sentence and phrase structure size as well as type.
Second, DMZTP identifies the brain areas that generate the neural “entrainment” activity they identified. I am no expert in these matters, but the method used seems different from what I have seen before in such papers. They used “intracranial cranial” electrodes (i.e. inside brains!) to localize the generators of the activity. Using this technique (btw, don’t try this at home, you need hospitals with consenting brain patients (epileptics in DMZTP’s case) who are ready to allow brain invasions), DMZTP shows that the areas that generate the syllable, phrase and sentence “waves” spatially dissociate.
Furthermore, they show that some areas of the brain that respond to phrasal and sentential structure “showed no significant syllabic rate response” (5). In the words of the authors:
In other words, there are cortical circuits specifically encoding larger, abstract linguistic structures without responding to syllabic-level acoustic features of speech. (5)
The invited conclusion (and I am more than willing to accept the invitation) is that there are neural circuits tuned to tracking this kind of abstract linguistic information. Note: This does not imply that these circuits are specifically tuned to exclusively tracking this kind of information. The linguistic specificity of these brain circuits has not been established. Nor has it been established that these kinds of brain circuits are unique to humans. However, as DMZTP clearly knows, this is a good first (and necessary) step towards studying these questions in more detail (see the DMZTP discussion section). This, IMO, is a very exciting prospect.
The last important contribution of the DMZTP lies in a speculation. Here it is:
Concurrent neural tracking of hierarchical linguistic structures provides a plausible functional mechanism for temporally integrating smaller linguistic units into larger structures. In this form of concurrent neural tracking, the neural representation of smaller linguistic units is embedded at different phases of the neural activity tracking a higher level structure. Thus, it provides a possible mechanism to transform the hierarchical embedding of linguistic structures into hierarchical embedding of neural dynamics, which may facilitate information integration in time. (5) [My emphasis, NH]
DMZTP relates this kind of brain wave embedding to mechanisms proposed in other parts of cog-neuro to account for how brains integrate top-down and bottom-up information and allows for the former to predict properties of the latter. Here’s DMTZP:
For language processing, it is likely that concurrent neural tracking of hierarchical linguistic structures provides mechanisms to generate predictions on multiple linguistic levels and allow interactions across linguistic levels….
Furthermore, coherent synchronization to the correlated linguistic structures in different representational networks, for example, syntactic, semantic and phonological, provides a way to integrate multi-dimensional linguistic representations into a coherent language percept just as temporal synchronization between cortical networks provides a possible solution to the binding problem in sensory processing. (5-6)
So, the DMZTP results are theoretically suggestive and fit well with other current theoretical speculations in the neural literature for addressing the binding problem and for providing a mechanism that allows for different kinds of information to talk to one another, and thereby influence online computation.
More particularly, the low frequency responses to which sentences entrain are
… more distributed than high-gamma activity [which entrain to syllables, NH], possibly reflecting the fact that the neural representations of different levels of linguistic structures serve as inputs to broad cortical areas. (5)
And this is intriguing for it provides a plausible way for the brain to use high level information to make useful predictions about the incoming input (i.e. a mechanism for how the brain uses higher level information to make useful top-down predictions).
There is one last really wonderful speculation; the oscillations DMZTP has identified are “related to intrinsic, ongoing neural oscillations” (6). If they are, then this would ground this speech processing system in some fundamental properties of brain dynamics. In other words, and this is way over the top, (some of) the system’s cog-neuro properties might reflect the most general features of brain architecture and dynamics (“the timescales of larger linguistic structures fall in the timescales, or temporal receptive windows that the relevant cortical networks are sensitive to”). Wouldn’t that be amazing! Here is DMZTP again:
A long-lasting controversy concerns how the neural responses to sensory stimuli are related to intrinsic, ongoing neural oscillations. This question is heavily debated for the neural response entrained to the syllabic rhythm of speech and can also be asked for neural activity entrained to the time courses of larger linguistic structures. Our experiment was not designed to answer this question; however, we clearly found that cortical speech processing networks have the capacity to generate activity on very long timescales corresponding to larger linguistic structures, such as phrases and sentences. In other words, the timescales of larger linguistic structures fall in the timescales, or temporal receptive windows that the relevant cortical networks are sensitive to. Whether the capacity of generating low-frequency activity during speech processing is the same as the mechanisms generating low-frequency spontaneous neural oscillations will need to be addressed in the future. (6)
Let me end this encomium with two more points.
First, a challenge: Norbert, why aren’t you critical of the hype that has been associated with this paper, as you were of the PR surrounding the Frankland & Greene (F&G) piece (see here and here)? The relevant text for this question is the NYU press release (here). The reason is that, so far as I can tell, the authors of DMZTP did not inflate their results the way F&G did. Most importantly, they did not suggest that their work vindicates Chomsky’s insights. So, in the paper, the authors note that their work “underscore the undeniable existence of hierarchical structure building operations in language comprehension” (5). These remarks then footnote standard papers in linguistics. Note the adjective ‘undeniable.’
Moreover, the press release is largely accurate. It describes DMZTP as “new support” for the “decades old” Chomsky theory that we possess an “internal grammar.” It rightly notes that “psychologists and neuroscientists predominantly reject this viewpoint” and believe that linguistic knowledge is “based on both statistical calculations between works and sound cue structures.” This, sadly, is the received wisdom in the cog-neuro and pysch world, and we know why (filthy Empiricism!!!). So, the release does not misdescribe the state of play and does not suggest that neuroscience has finally provided real evidence for a heretofore airy-fairy speculation. In fact, it seems more or less accurate, hence no criticism from me. What is sad is the noted state of play in psych and cog-neuro, and this IS sad, very very sad.
Second, the paper provides evidence for a useful methodological point: that one can do excellent brain science using G theory that is not at the cutting edge. The G knowledge explored is of Syntactic Structures (SS) vintage. No Minimalism here. And that’s fine. Minimalism does not gainsay that sentences have the kinds of structures that SS postulated. It suggests different generative mechanisms, but not ones that result in wildly different structures. So, you out there in cog-neuro land: it’s ok to use G properties that are not at the theoretical cutting edge. Of course, there is nothing wrong with hunting for Merge (go ahead), but many questions clearly do not need to exploit the latest theoretical insight. So no more excuses regarding how ling theory is always changing and so is so hard to use and is so complicated yada yada yada.
That’s it. My 2 cents. Go read the paper. It is very good, very suggestive and, oddly for a technical piece, very accessible. Also, please comment. Others may feel less enthralled than I have been. Tell us why.
 I would include some recent papers by Lyna Pylkkanen on adjectival modification in this group as well.
 These are two different claims: it could be that the linguistic knowledge exists but is not used online. However, we have excellent evidence for both the existence of grammatical knowledge and its on-line usage. DMZTP provides yet more evidence that such knowledge exists and is used online.
 P.S. Most who rail against dualism really don’t seem to understand what the doctrine is. But, for current purposes, this really does not matter.
 Note, the paper does not claim to explain how hierarchical information is coded in the brain. It might be that it is actually coded in neural oscillations. But DMZTP does not claim this. It claims that these oscillations reflect the encoding (however that is done) and that they can be used to possibly convey the relevant information. David Adger makes this point in the comments section of the earlier post on the DMZTP paper. So far as I can tell, DMZTP commits no hostages as to how the G information is coded in brains. It is, for example, entirely consistent with the possibility that a Gallsitel like DNA coding of this info is correct. All the paper does is note that these oscillations are excellent indices of such structure, not that they are the neural bases of this knowledge.
 Here’s a completely wild thought: imagine if we could relate phases to the structure of these intrinsic oscillations? So the reason for the phases we have is that they correspond to the size of the natural oscillations which subvene language use. Now that would be something. Of course, at present there is zero reason to believe anything like this. But then again, why exactly phases exist and are the ones there are is theoretically ungrounded even within linguistics. That suggests that wild speculation is apposite.