Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Lamar Smith's attack on NSF a thinly veiled attempt to suppress environmental education

It's no secret that Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the Science, Space and Technology committee, has been waging a war on the National Science Foundation. See hereherehere and here. In a 2013 piece in USA Today, Smith, writing with Eric Cantor stated:
While the NSF spends most of its funds well, we have recently seen far too many questionable grants, especially in the social, behavioral and economic sciences. 
A link to a more complete list of the suspect grants on which Smith requested information can be found here. It's interesting that among the questionable grants, a sizable fraction of them concern public communication of environmental information, including climate change.  In fact, eco-related projects account for more than half ($16.9M) of the $26M in funding handed out by the NSF for "questionable" research.  Place this observation in the context of how much "waste" is actually under question--$26M is in the ballpark of 0.05% of NSF's budget for the 8-year time window over which the "questionable" grants were handed out--and it is quite clear that this is not about trimming waste.  It's about promoting a political agenda by suppressing the dissemination of information on environmental issues, particularly climate change.  

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Postdoctoral Fellowship: The Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at Purdue University

Postdoctoral Fellowship: The Department of Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences at Purdue University invites applications for a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, National Institutes of Health beginning July 1, 2015. Applicants must be U.S. citizens or have permanent resident status. This will be a two-year appointment. Individuals may seek training in any of the following inter-related areas: (1) speech and voice production, development, and disorders; (2) language structure, development, and disorders; (3) auditory perception, neural plasticity, and sensory aids; (4) cognitive neuroscience approaches to hearing, language processing, and communication disorders; and (5) linguistics applied to communication sciences and disorders. Potential mentors include: Alexander Francis, Lisa Goffman, Michael Heinz, Jessica Huber, David Kemmerer, Keith Kluender, Ananthanarayan Krishnan, Laurence Leonard, Amanda Seidl, Mahalakshmi Sivasankar, Elizabeth Strickland, Christine Weber-Fox, and Ronnie Wilbur. Applicants are encouraged to contact appropriate individuals on this list prior to submitting an application. A description of the research areas of these potential mentors can be found at http://www.purdue.edu/hhs/slhs/research/areas/index.php. Application materials should include a statement of interest, three letters of recommendation, a curriculum vitae, and copies of relevant publications.  These materials should be sent to Laurence B. Leonard, Project Director, at xdxl@purdue.edu.  Deadline for submission of applications is January 16, 2015. Purdue University is an equal opportunity/equal access/affirmative action employer fully committed to achieving a diverse workforce.   www.purdue.edu/hhs/slhs

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Dear crowd: please crowd-solve the question "What can be or should be the relation between linguistics and neuroscience?"

Dave Embick and I just wrote a paper (for LCN) in which we speculate further about the possible relations between linguistics and neuroscience (as in Poeppel, D. and Embick, D. (2005). The relation between linguistics and neuroscience. In A. Cutler (ed.), Twenty-First Century Psycholinguistics: Four Cornerstones. Lawrence Erlbaum; and Poeppel, D. (2012). The maps problem and the mapping problem: Two challenges for a cognitive neuroscience of speech and language. Cogn Neuropsychol, 29(1-2):34-55. PDFs available on my site.) In particular, we discuss what we might aspire to, i.e. what the endgame might look like - or should look like. We are interested in reactions and advice of any kind. In some sense, we'd like to crowd-source the issue, i.e. collect examples of true success stories, spectacular failures, and so on ...

But: the bar is *high*. For example, a success might be something akin to the explanatory, mechanistic, causal understanding we have for sound localization in the barn owl (e.g. here). A failure might be akin to the case of C. elegans, a creature for which we know the genome and every neural ganglion and the entire wiring diagram but we cannot even figure out why the damn worm turns left or right. What, then, is a useful relation between computational-representational (CR) theories (as developed in linguistics, psycholinguistics, computer science, etc.) and neurobiological (NB) infrastructure?

In the review process, we got reactions across the spectrum, as per usual. One reviewer found the speculations reasonable, and in some places even helpful. Phew. Another reviewer found us relentlessly naive and misguided. Also phew.

Attached is a precis of the paper (which is, of course, available upon request). We welcome any advice, criticism, example, counterexample - either as comments here or messages to Embick (embick@BABEL.ling.upenn.edu) or me (david.poeppel@nyu.edu).

Towards a computational(ist) neurobiology of language:
Correlational, Integrated, and Explanatory neurolinguistics (***Précis***)

David Embick, University of Pennsylvania & David Poeppel, NYU and MPI

Abstract: We outline what an integrated approach to language research that connects experimental, theoretical, and neurobiological domains of inquiry would look like, and ask to what extent unification is possible across domains. At the center of the program is the idea that computational/representational (CR) theories of language must be used to investigate its neurobiological (NB) foundations. We consider different ways in which CR and NB might be connected. These are (1) A Correlational way, in which NB computation is correlated with the CR theory; (2) An Integrated way, in which NB data provide crucial evidence for choosing among CR theories; and (3) an Explanatory way, in which properties of NB explain why a CR theory is the way it is. We examine various questions concerning the prospects for Explanatory connections in particular, including to what extent it makes sense to say that NB could be specialized for particular computations.

(Q1) Basic Question: How does the brain execute the different computations that make up language?
(Q2) Advanced Question: Is the fact that human language is made up of certain computations (and not others) explained by the fact that these computations are executed in neurobiological structures that have certain properties (and not others)?

Possible Connections
Correlational Neurolinguistics: CR theories of language are used to investigate the NB foundations of language. Knowledge of how the brain computes is gained by capitalizing on CR knowledge of language.
Integrated Neurolinguistics: CR neurolinguistics plus the NB perspective provides crucial evidence that adjudicates among different CR theories. I.e., brain data enrich our understanding of language at the CR level.
Explanatory Neurolinguistics: (Correlational+Integrated Neurolinguistics) plus something about NB structure/function explains why the CR theory of language involves particular computations and representations (and not others).

Questions about specialization (crucial for Explanatory Neurolinguistics)
Specialization Question 1: Are there particular levels of NB organization that are to be privileged as candidates for CR specialization?
Specialization Question 2: Are there particular parts of the CR theory that are more likely to be candidates for Explanatory Neurolinguistic explanation than others?

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Broca’s area doesn’t care what you do (syntactically): it cares how you do it (actively)

Guest post by William Matchin:

There are a few topics on this blog on the polemical spectrum that don’t happen to involve mirror neurons; one of them is the topic of Broca’s area and its putative role in syntax (see previous posts here and here). Our recent paper published in Brain and Language – (Matchin, Sprouse & Hickok, 2014) - addresses this issue.

The hypotheses regarding syntax and Broca’s area were never ludicrous - the neuropsychological data suggesting a close link between Broca’s area and the grammar are quite striking, as well as compelling. Rather, there are two arguments, empirical and methodological, against these hypotheses: (1, empirical) these hypotheses ignore the fact that patients with agrammatic production and sentence comprehension issues appear to have intact syntactic competence, as shown by their ability to perform remarkably well on acceptability judgments (Linebarger et al., 1983), and (2, methodological) syntactic manipulations are often conflated with processing mechanisms – as such, increased activation in neuroimaging studies for, say, center-embedded sentences over right-branching sentences (Stromswold et al., 1996) may very well reflect computations related to how the sentences are handled (e.g., working memory), and not their syntactic properties. This makes interpretation of these kinds of neuroimaging results difficult – are the effects due to syntactic operations (e.g., Merge or Movement) or are they due to domain-general processing mechanisms like working memory?

This second concern was addressed by a previous paper by another alumna of the Hickok lab, Corianne Rogalsky (Rogalsky et al., 2008). In that paper, Corianne showed that activation to sentence complexity in the posterior portion of Broca’s area – the pars opercularis – could be accounted for by domain-general verbal working memory. However, activation in the anterior portion of Broca’s area – the pars triangularis – could not be accounted for by verbal working memory.


The present study shows that activity in the pars triangularis during sentence processing is sensitive to how the sentence is processed (active vs. passive processing mechanism) and doesn’t particularly care what the specific syntactic operations involved are, speaking against syntactic hypotheses of Broca’s area function.


The study borrows from the psycholinguistic literature on the filled-gap effect, which in a nutshell demonstrates that sentences involving movement are processed actively (i.e., subjects predict resolutions to the open dependency) (Stowe et al., 1986). Contrariwise, sentences involving canonical anaphor binding (a different syntactic operation) are processed passively (i.e., subjects can’t predict resolutions to the dependency, because they don’t know there is a dependency until they get to the end of it).


Previous research suggested some syntactic-specificity to the pars triangularis, in that a distance manipulation for movement sentences resulted in activity in this region, while a distance manipulation for anaphor binding sentences did not (Santi & Grodzinsky, 2007), consistent with the syntactic movement hypothesis of Broca’s area (Grodzinsky, 2000). However, in that experiment, syntax (movement, binding) was conflated with processing (active, passive), as the psycholinguistic literature indicates.


Enter backward anaphora: unlike canonical anaphora, psycholinguistic data indicate they process these sentences actively, just like movement sentences (van Gompel & Liversedge, 2003). This corrects for the conflation between syntax and processing in these two constructions. Now, the question is: do backward anaphora show a distance effect in the pars triangularis? If no, then the movement hypothesis stands; if yes, then there is strong evidence to suggest that this region cares about a processing mechanism that can be employed for constructions involving different syntactic operations, with no indication of syntactic-specificity.


The answer is yes – our results demonstrated a distance effect in the pars triangularis.



There is more to the paper, but this is the key result: Broca’s area doesn’t seem to care too much about the syntactic details, but it certainly does care about the processing details. This converges with additional data showing that when you take movement constructions that aren’t processed actively (parasitic gaps), then you don’t get activation in Broca’s area (Santi & Grodzinsky, 2012). So, movement, anaphora, doesn’t matter – what matters is that there is active (predictive) processing.

Many questions remain: How does the brain do syntax? What is the exact mechanism accounting for activation in Broca’s area, if not verbal working memory? Why do people care so much about Broca’s area?* These questions are largely unanswered in this particular paper, but I promise you that we have some ideas (and data) bearing on these questions, so stay tuned.

*We don’t actually have any data or ideas bearing on this particular issue

Grodzinsky, Y. (2000). The neurology of syntax: Language use without Broca's area. Behavioral and brain sciences, 23(01), 1-21.

Matchin, W., Sprouse, J., & Hickok, G. (2014) A structural distance effect for backward
anaphora in Broca’s area: an fMRI study. Brain and language, 138(11), 1-11.

Rogalsky, C., Matchin, W., & Hickok, G. (2008). Broca's area, sentence comprehension, and working memory: an fMRI Study. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 2, 14.

Santi, A., & Grodzinsky, Y. (2007). Working memory and syntax interact in Broca's area. Neuroimage, 37(1), 8-17.

Santi, A., & Grodzinsky, Y. (2012). Broca's area and sentence comprehension: a relationship parasitic on dependency, displacement or predictability? Neuropsychologia, 50(5), 821-832.

Stowe, L. A. (1986). Parsing WH-constructions: Evidence for on-line gap location. Language and cognitive processes, 1(3), 227-245.

Stromswold, K., Caplan, D., Alpert, N., & Rauch, S. (1996). Localization of syntactic comprehension by positron emission tomography. Brain and language, 52(3), 452-473.

van Gompel, R. P., & Liversedge, S. P. (2003). The influence of morphological information on cataphoric pronoun assignment. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 29(1), 128.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Two post docs in Philly

Postdoctoral Fellowship in Noninvasive Brain Stimulation in Neurorehabilitation and Aphasia 
Laboratory for Cognition and Neural Stimulation (LCNS), University of Pennsylvania

A postdoctoral fellowship is available in the Laboratory for Cognition and Neural Stimulation (LCNS) under the direction of Roy Hamilton, MD, MS, a behavioral neurologist at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn). The central thrust of work in the LCNS is to use electrical and magnetic noninvasive brain stimulation to explore the characteristics and limits of functional plasticity in the intact and injured adult human brain. The principle NIH-grant funded project related to the postdoctoral position involves behavioral, neuropsychological, and neurostimulation (rTMS) approaches in patients with aphasia. Additional available projects in the LCNS involve other forms of neurostimulation, including tDCS and HD-tDCS, as well as neuroimaging (fMRI, fNIRS) approaches. The ideal candidate must have experience in one or more of the following areas: behavioral studies in brain-injured patient populations, studies involving measures of human neurophysiology (EEG, ERP), functional or anatomical imaging techniques, advanced statistics, or noninvasive brain stimulation techniques. A track record of prior academic authorship is strongly encouraged. Moreover, an ideal candidate must be able to work independently and proactively propose and test new ideas that are relevant to his or her projects. Good oral and written communication skills are expected. The fellow will train with Dr. Hamilton as a primary mentor, but will also be expected to interact and collaborate with a network of outstanding peers and secondary mentors in the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience (CCN) and the Department of Neurology at Penn. Eligible candidates must hold a PhD or comparable degree. While applicants with a wide range of training backgrounds will be considered, a doctoral degree in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, biomedical engineering, or neurorehabilitation will be considered a strong asset to the position. The position is a full-time appointment initially for 12 months, with the possibility of renewing for additional years, contingent upon funding. Pay will follow the NIH payscale. The anticipated start date would be 1/1/15, but there is room for negotiation. Women and under-represented groups are encouraged to apply.

For inquiries please contact Roy Hamilton, MD, MS at roy.hamilton@uphs.upenn.edu, (215) 779-1603.

Post-Doctoral Fellowships in Translational Neuroscience and Neurorehabilitation
Three year NIH-funded fellowships are available at the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute (MRRI), in collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania (Penn), for research training in cognitive and motor neuroscience and neurorehabilitation. This program is designed specifically to prepare young investigators to adapt emerging theoretical advances to the development of rehabilitation treatments. To that end, we invite applications from (1) individuals with relevant basic science training who wish to learn to apply basic science principles to the study and treatment of neurological deficits and (2) individuals with relevant clinical training who wish to learn cutting-edge neuroscience and neurorehabilitation research methods. Fellows will train with a primary mentor at either MRRI or Penn and will interact with peers and mentors with diverse clinical and experimental backgrounds. Applications will be reviewed on a rolling basis until all of the available positions are filled.
Women and minorities are strongly encouraged to apply.
Applicants must be citizens or non-citizen nationals of the United States or have been lawfully admitted for permanent residence. Both MRRI and Penn are Equal Opportunity Employers and welcome and encourages all qualified candidates to apply including, but not limited to, minorities and individuals with disabilities. A complete list of available mentors and instructions for application are available at http://mrri.org/T32.html.
Applications should be submitted to Kevin Whelihan, Research Administrator,
 whelihak@einstein.edu ) and must include:
- current CV
- cover letter describing research interests and career goals. Given the translational focus of the training program, applicants should indicate a preferred primary mentor and, if possible, one or more secondary mentors who appear to offer the best fit in balancing basic and applied aspects of the candidate’s interests.
- 2-3 letters of reference

Professor or Reader in Human Neuroscience Royal Holloway, University of London - Department of Psychology

Full Time - permanent role
Professorial salary is in the range £60,791 to £112,365 per annum inclusive of London Allowance,dependent on assessment through the College Professorial Pay Banding Scheme.
Reader salary is in the range £49,462 to £56,975 per annum inclusive of London Allowance
Applications are invited for a permanent post at Professorial or Reader level in the Department of Psychology, Royal Holloway, University of London. 
We invite applicants with a PhD in Psychology or related discipline, who possess an outstanding international research profile in human neuroscience, both in terms of research publications and in gaining research funding, to join our internationally recognized academic team.  Successful applicants will be expected to have an established programme of research in the neuroscience of human behaviour that includes functional MRI. Experience of other MRI techniques (e.g. DTI and MRS) will be an advantage and ideally candidates will have expertise in MRI data acquisition as well as data analysis. It is envisaged that the appointee may take on a leadership role in our MRI unit and will contribute strongly to the strategic direction of neuroscience research in the Department. The successful candidate would contribute to the undergraduate and postgraduate student curriculum as well as contributing across a range of departmental activities.
We offer a dynamic and supportive environment, in an internationally recognized department that ranks among the best in the UK for research and teaching and has ambitious plans for development and growth. The Department has state-of-the-art facilities available for researchers including MRI, EEG, TMS, eye trackers, behavioural testing suites, social and infant observation labs. It also has strong links with clinical organisations, as well as government, industrial, and charity affiliations. The College was ranked 102 in the Times HE World University Rankings 2013-14 and is the leading university, in the UK, in terms of its “international outlook”. Information about our existing research groups and department structure can be found on our Departmental website: http://www.rhul.ac.uk/psychology
This is a full time and permanent post based in Egham, Surrey where the College is situated in a beautiful, leafy campus with excellent local schools and easy commuting distance to central London.  The start date for this post is flexible however we would expect that the appointee would take up the position in the first half of 2015.
Informal enquiries regarding this post can be directed to the Head of Department, Professor Patrick Leman (Patrick.Leman@royalholloway.ac.uk).
To view further details of this post and to apply please visit https://jobs.royalholloway.ac.ukThe RHUL Recruitment Team can be contacted with queries by email at: recruitment@rhul.ac.uk or via telephone on: +44 (0)1784 41 4241.
Please quote the reference: 0914-186
Closing Date:  Midnight 29th October 2014
Interview Date:  Likely to take place 13th November 2014 and candidate presentations are very likely to be on that date.  
The College is committed to equality and diversity, and encourages applications from all sections of the community.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Mirror neurons do not resonate with actions: two pieces of single-unit evidence

Gergley Csibra (2007) noticed a fundamental flaw in the logic of the mirror neuron theory of action understanding:
[there is] a tension between two conflicting claims about action mirroring implied by the direct-matching hypothesis: the claim that action mirroring reflects low-level resonance mechanisms, and the claim that it reflects high-level action understanding. The tension arises from the fact that the more it seems that mirroring is nothing else but faithful duplication of observed actions, the less evidence it provides for action understanding; and the more mirroring represents high-level interpretation of the observed actions, the less evidence it provides that this interpretation is generated by low-level motor duplication.  
Csibra's tension is evident in two famous and influential monkey mirror neuron studies by the Parma group.  In one, Umilta et al. 2001, mirror neurons were shown to fire during the observation of object-directed actions even when the object was hidden from view during the actual reaching (it was shown to the monkey before being hidden).  These same cells tended not to fire when there was no object behind the occluding screen (an empty platform was shown to the monkey).  The result was interpreted as evidence that mirror neurons are responding to the meaning or goal of the action, not the action itself. They write,

In order to activate the neurons in the hidden condition, two requirements need to be met: the monkey must “know” that there is an object behind the occluder and must see the hand of the experimenter disappearing behind the occluder. It appears therefore that the mirror neurons responsive in the hidden condition are able to generate a motor representation of an observed action, not only when the monkey sees that action, but also when it knows its outcome without seeing its most crucial part (i.e., hand-object interaction).
But if the monkey already knows the outcome, what is the point of simulating it with a motor response?  Note that the action, the movement itself, is the same in both cases.  What causes the mirror neurons to fire, then, is not the movement, but the presence or absence of the object (in the monkey's memory).  It is not a simple resonance.

The other experiment is even more famous, the report on parietal lobe mirror neurons in Science by Fogassi, et al. 2005. In this experiment, monkeys observed an experimenter reaching for an object and either bringing it to the mouth or placing it in a container. The figure here, from a 2006 Scientific American piece by Rizzolatti, shows a schematic of the set up:

The figure shows the response of a grasping-to-eat mirror neuron responding both when the monkey performs the action (1) and when he observes the action (2).  Notice, though, the the point in time when the cell starts firing during observation: it is during the reach toward the object, prior to the grasp (the red line=moment of grasp).  This is puzzling because the reach toward the object is identical in both conditions.  Only the subsequent movement, bringing to mouth or placing in container, distinguishes the action. How could the mirror neuron know ahead of time?  Is it mystically reading the mind of the experimenter?  Not at all.  

The figure is actually misleading.  If you look in the online supplemental material of the original report in Science you find this:

The container was present only in the trials in which the grasped object was subsequently placed into it. The presence of the container acted as a cue allowing the monkey to predict the most likely subsequent motor act.
It was the visual context that told the monkey ahead of time what was going to happen.  So again like the occlusion study, what determines mirror neuron activity is not the action itself but the monkey's broader understanding of the action context.  

Monkeys do not understanding because their motor system resonates with observed actions. The motor system resonates with observed actions because the monkey understands already what's going to happen.  


Csibra, G. (2007). Action mirroring and action understanding: An alternative account. In P. Haggard, Y. Rosetti & M. Kawato (Eds.), Sensorimotor foundations of higher cognition. Attention and Performance XII (pp. 453-459). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 

Fogassi, L., Ferrari, P. F., Gesierich, B., Rozzi, S., Chersi, F., & Rizzolatti, G. (2005). Parietal lobe: from action organization to intention understanding. Science, 308(5722), 662-667.

Hickok, G. (2014). The Myth of Mirror Neurons. New York: Norton

Umiltà, M., Kohler, E., Gallese, V., Fogassi, L., Fadiga, L., Keysers, C., & Rizzolatti, G. (2001). I know what you are doing. a neurophysiological study. Neuron, 31, 155-165.