[Tydings Hall is the 3rd building to the west of MMH, after Woods and Key.]
Readers and listeners assign interpretations to text and speech moment-by-moment as soon as they perceive new input, rather than waiting until sentences unfold entirely to discern who is doing what to whom. Although efficient, processing language ‘on-the-fly’ can be costly: early interpretations sometimes turn out wrong when late-arriving input conflicts with one’s developing analysis. In this talk, I will discuss how domain-general ‘cognitive control’ functions are central to individuals’ ability to revise incorrect parsing decisions and prevent comprehension failure. Cognitive control refers to the regulation of thoughts and actions when faced with competing evidential sources, enabling individuals to override dominant behaviors during goal-directed tasks. I will introduce a research program that investigates the interactions among language and nonlinguistic cognitive-control processes in both typical and atypical populations. First, I present a theory wherein, contrary to popular belief, Broca’s area is not a “grammar organ,” but rather a general-purpose cognitive-control mechanism with an important role in language use. Second, I will discuss a test case of a patient with circumscribed Broca’s area damage, who has preserved grammatical skills (not Broca’s aphasic) but deficient cognitive control, which includes a selective failure to override misinterpretations during language comprehension, and produce a word from among competing alternative candidates. Finally, I will demonstrate that healthy adults’ cognitive-control abilities are plastic, namely amenable to improvement via training, and that performance increases during training generalize to unpracticed measures of language processing. Together, these findings have theoretical and applied implications for language education and intervention in the clinical arena.