Cognitive Neuroscience of Natural Language Use. Cambridge University Press. Ecological validity is frequently seen as an impossible standard to meet.
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In practice, it often receives lower priority than internal consistency, replicability and reproducibility, and control of experimental stimuli, variables and confounds. These desiderata have characterized research in experimental psychology and cognitive neuroscience in the last century. Research on language processing is no exception.
The perceived gap between naturally occurring behavior and laboratory tasks may be even wider here than in other areas of cognitive science. The gap may also be wider than necessary, as suggested in Cognitive Neuroscience of Natural Language Use , an anthology edited by Roel M. One can have one's cake and eat it too, largely thanks to progress in the construction of stimuli and experimental designs, discussed by Willems in the book's Introduction and in the closing section by Hasson and Egidi, and to advances in brain imaging methods, reviewed in a dedicated chapter by Andric and Small.
The book does more than reminding its readers that the neuroscientific study of language in more ecologically valid conditions is possible in practice. It argues it is theoretically desirable, if our ultimate goal is to understand how the brain engages with discourse, dialogue and even literary texts, not only how it represents and processes words and sentences. What makes this collection compelling is its pragmatic stance. The latter perspective gives up on the traditional constraints of replicability and control, and is fraught with several methodological difficulties.
The book does not adhere to the view that researchers should carry around a controlled task and make it happen in real life in the tradition of Brunswik , bringing as it were the lab into the real world. This might soon become feasible with the advent of portable neuroimaging technology.
The underlying proposal of the book is rather the opposite: bring more real-life features into the laboratory.
Cognitive Neuroscience of Natural Language Use
This is a more modest proposal, but one that is likely to work better than its radical naturalistic predecessors. As several contributions in the book testify, it is already delivering. The idea of bringing real-world complexity into the lab intercepts the issue of idealization. In much laboratory research on language processing, the stimuli, the task and the experimental setting are idealized models of their real-world counterparts.
The participant sits in a booth or lays in an MR scanner, secluded from potential conversation partners and from the world of situated action to which language belongs. The book points to several remedies to this situation: for example, in the domain of language production, the study of spontaneous connected speech in clinical populations, reviewed by Ash and Grossman. Idealization is all well and good so long as it allows us to understand the laws and principles underlying the phenomena.
Eventually this process saturates, and one should seek retreat from idealization. Adding complexity to experimental paradigms allows researchers to assess whether the principles uncovered scale-up or generalize, and to discover new principles. Retreating from the idealizations of traditional psycholinguistics and cognitive neuroscience leads to naturalism. These fields have grown in recent years, and are well represented in the book, in particular in chapters by Knoeferle, and Stolk, Blokpoel, van Rooij and Toni. The shift also has retrospective value.
Cognitive neuroscience of natural language use: introduction Roel M. Willems; 2. Small; 3. Why study connected speech production?
Sharon Ash and Murray Grossman; 4. Situation models in naturalistic comprehension Christopher A. Kurby and Jeffrey M. Zacks; 5. Language comprehension in rich non-linguistic contexts: combining eye tracking and event related brain potentials Pia Knoeferle; 6. The NOLB model. A model of the natural organization of language and the brain Jeremy I.
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Skipper; 7. Towards a neurocognitive poetics model of literary reading Arthur M. Jacobs; 8. Towards a multi-brain perspective on communication in dialogue Anna K.
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