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Presentation by Dr. Evelina Fedorenko

Syntactic processing in language and music: Existence of overlapping circuits does not imply lack of specialized ones

Abstract: Over the last several years, a number of behavioral, ERP, MEG, and fMRI studies have argued for overlap in processing musical and linguistic structure (e.g., Patel et al., 1998; Maess et al., 2001; Koelsch et al., 2002; Koelsch et al., 2005; Fedorenko et al., 2009; Slevc et al., 2009; Hoch et al., 2011; see e.g., Koelsch, 2005, Slevc, 2012, or Tillmann, 2012, for reviews). The presence of overlap in cognitive/neural mechanisms that support syntactic processing in music and language is sometimes taken as evidence against functional specialization in each domain. However, the presence of overlapping circuits in no way bears on whether additional specialized circuits exist (e.g., Patel, 2003). Indeed, double dissociations between high-level linguistic and musical processing in patients with brain damage suggest at least some degree of independence between these two domains (e.g., Luria et al., 1965; Peretz, 1993; Dalla Bella & Peretz, 1999; Peretz & Coltheart, 2003; cf. Ustvedt, 1937; Patel et al., 2008). I will summarize recent fMRI evidence for functional specialization for linguistic and musical structural processing. In particular, a number of brain regions in the left frontal and temporal cortices that robustly respond to the presence of structure in the linguistic signal show little or no response to musical structure (Fedorenko, Behr & Kanwisher, 2011; also Rogalsky et al., 2011). Furthermore, several regions in the bilateral temporal cortices that respond to the presence of structure in music are not sensitive to linguistic structure (Fedorenko, McDermott, Norman-Haignere & Kanwisher, 2012). I will further argue that the overlap that has been observed between syntactic processing in language and music arises within a highly domain-general fronto-parietal network, the “multiple demand” network (e.g., Duncan, 2010), which includes parts of Broca’s area (Fedorenko, Duncan & Kanwisher, 2012). I will conclude with some hypotheses about the roles of the specialized vs. domain-general regions in syntactic processing in each domain.

Bio: Evelina (Ev) Fedorenko received her undergraduate degree in Psychology and Linguistics from Harvard University in 1998 and her Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience from MIT in 2002.  She stayed on at MIT for her postdoctoral training in the Kanwisher lab, where she is currently a research scientist. She seeks to understand i) the representations and computations that underlie human communicative abilities, and ii) the relationship between the language system and other cognitive/neural systems, such as the domain-general multiple-demand system (Duncan, 2010), the system supporting social cognition, or the system supporting musical and more general auditory processing. To do so, she is adopting individual-subject fMRI analysis methods that have been successful in other domains (e.g., vision), supplementing those with behavioral investigations of healthy and brain-damaged individuals and more temporally-sensitive methods like ECoG.


Apr 16 2013


4:00 pm - 5:15 pm




BRAMS, Suite 0-120
1430 boul. Mont Royal, Université de Montréal



BRAMS (International Laboratory for Brain, Music and Sound Research) is a unique laboratory dedicated to research excellence in the study of music and auditory cognition with a focus on neuroscience. BRAMS is located in Montreal and jointly affiliated with the University of Montreal and McGill University.


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