Research

Creating meaning:
How does the brain deal with language in context?

While we know a lot about how the brain processes words or sentences, we understand surprisingly little about how the brain deals with longer segments of verbal information like stories or conversations. And how does the situational context affect how information is processed? How do task demands influence comprehension? Does it matter who communicates information for what we perceive as relevant? My main research interest is how our brains create rich, vivid, and multimodal mental ‘images’ about people, events, or environments from reading or listening to stories and the social factors (e.g. speaker identity) that influence how humans attend to verbal information. The ultimate goal is to understand how the language system in the brain connects to other cognitive systems like episodic memory and social cognition. I use a wide range of research methods including functional (connectivity) MRI, (large scale) behavioral experiments with healthy young and older people as well as patients with brain damage, semantic network modeling, and meta-analyses of behavioral and functional neuroimaging data. I am a fan of open science and try to preregister all my studies, publish as much data and code as possible, and upload preprints of my manuscript. You find much information about individual projects I have been working on on my Open Science profile.

While my research interests are very broad, the two aspects I focused most on in my recent research are:

How does person identity or appearance affect interaction?

We know that the appearance of people does not only affect how we perceive them, but also how we relate to and communicate with them. Beautiful people are often treated with preference while people whose appearance deviates from the norm are often associated with unfavorable stereotypes and treated worse than their more attractive peers. While it has been established that these stereotypes for people who belong to one or more stigmatized groups exist, it is not clear whether these are learned preferences or a result of a basic behavioral response. I am interested in investigating how stigma affects social interaction, particularly verbal communication, and potential applications for overcoming social bias. I am using behavioral experiments, functional neuroimaging, and semantic network modeling (with Yoed Kenett, https://yoedkenett.academia.edu/) to answer these questions.

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 we relate 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 specific problem solving (e.g. navigating through a city based on maps or verbal route descriptions)? Can patients with compromised neural function compensate via an alternative strategy? I am trying to answer such questions mainly in the context of language comprehension with functional neuroimaging and behavioral experiments with healthy and patient populations (with Stacey Humphries, https://staceyahumphries.com; and Emily Coderre, https://www.uvm.edu/cnhs/csd/profiles/emily-l-coderre-phd).