Semantics in the wild: How does the brain deal with language in context?

While we know a lot about how the brain processes language on the level of words or single sentences, we understand surprisingly little about how the brain deals with longer segments like stories or real conversations. I want to understand how our brains can create vivid and multimodal mental ‘images’ from reading books or listening to interlocutors telling a story. The ultimate goal is to understand how the language system in the brain connects to other cognitive systems like episodic memory.

How do we understand metaphors?

Metaphors are interesting for language research because they tap into a special aspect of semantics: flexibility. When we use a verb in a non-literal manner, our brain needs to know the difference between a word and its potential meanings. This is what makes them sometimes hard to understand if they are new, but once we are familiar with a (group of) metaphors, we can easily use them. In one of my current projects, I want to find out in how far context helps us interpret metaphors. I want to figure out if the brain processes a metaphor in the same or different manner as literal sentences or its context.

The role of perspective taking in everyday cognition

Whether we remember the past, imagine situations, or read a map, perspective is a crucial feature in how cognition relates to the world. People seem to use both 1st person (actor’s perspective) and 3rd person (observer’s perspective) effectively but at the same time show great variation as to which perspective they seem to prefer. Which factors influence whether we  use one or the other strategy and in which situations? Are some of us better in one perspective than the other? What strategy is most efficient in problem solving (e.g. navigating through a city based on maps or verbal route descriptions)? Can patients with compromised neural function compensate via the alternative strategy? I am trying to answer some of these questions in the context of language comprehension with healthy and patient populations.

How does human appearance affect interaction?

We know that the appearance of people does not only affect how we perceive them, but also how we relate and communicate with them. Beautiful people are often treated with preference while people with facial disfigurements are often associated with bad stereotypes and treated less favorable. While it has been established that these bad stereotypes exist, it is not clear whether these are learned preferences or a result of a basic behavioral response. The first step in finding a solution is to understand where it comes from.  For now, the goal of this project is to disentangle perceptual, cognitive, and social aspects of face perception of people with facial disfigurements before and after cosmetic corrective surgery. On long term, I am interested in investigating the effects of  facial disfigurement on interaction, particularly verbal communication.