Rice University

Linguistics 411, Neurolinguistics

Project Suggestions

You should view your project as

            (1)  a contribution to knowledge, and

            (2)  a way to demonstrate how much you will have learned in this course.

Most of these topics call for a review of recent literature. I can guide you to some of the relevant literature, and you may find other items by using Google Scholar and other sources. Keep in mind that there is a lot of muddled thinking out there, and if you run across some of it in your review, don’t be misled or bamboozled. Instead, you should be critical, using what you will have been learning in the course, and pointing out where the authors could do some rethinking and thus improve their ideas.  With some of the topics, you may be able to add something meaningful of your own to previous work.

The first three topics in the list are for projects of a different kind. These involve original thinking, using what you will have learned. The fourth combines both literature review and original thinking.

For help in selecting a topic and in identifying relevant literature, please consult me. In any case, you need to check with him before making your final selection. If the topic you pick has already been chosen, he may steer you to another one. It is best to select your topic early in this semester. You will then be able to be mulling it over as we go through the course. Also, there will be a better chance that someone else hasn’t already chosen the one you want.

Papers deemed good enough may, after editing, be added to the Language and Brain website (with author's permission).

Project Topics.
This is not an exhaustive list. Please feel free to come up with your own topic. Some of these topics are broad enough to permit work by two different students, working with different emphases.

  1. Mirror Neurons. A lot has been published on mirror neurons in recent years, and most of it has been misguided, for reasons that should become apparent as you go through this course. Your job, should you choose this topic, is to show where some of the thinking has gone astray and come up with an explanation of what is really going on here. (I can also steer you to a couple of good papers representing sound thinking on this topic.)
  2. Response to Poeppel. Professor David Poeppel of the University of Maryland is one of the leading researchers in neurolinguistics. In a recent paper he bemoans the fact that there is no commensurability between the basic units of linguistics and those of neuroscience. He was considering the wrong kind (albeit a well-known kind) of linguistics. Your job, should you choose this one, is to show how choosing a different kind of linguistics gives an altogether different picture of the situation.
  3. How memories work. This project involves original thinking about memory, using the tools you will acquire in this course. For example, something you see or hear or smell reminds you of an event from years ago. How does this process work? (I can get you started.)
  4. Evolution of brain and language. The idea of co-evolution of language and brain seems very attractive and has been promoted by, among others, Terrence Deacon and Thomas Schoenemann. But there are strong arguments from Philip Liebermann that human vocal dexterity was not sufficient for language as we know it until about 100 thousand years ago – when the brain was already fully developed. If that is so, the brain developed before language, and the idea of co-evolution has to be thrown out. I can point you to (some of) the relevant literature, and you can contribute your own thoughts.
  5. The neural hybrid model of semantic memory. This model, developed by John Hart and Michael Kraut, looks very intriguing at first glance. I would like someone to investigate and find out if they are really on to something.
  6. Recent work of Friedemann Pulverműller. Pulverműller has been continuing to do interesting things since publication of his 2002 book (parts of which we will be considering in the course). An up-to-date review of this work would be valuable.
  7. Evidence for vowel positions in Wernicke's area. There is some very intriguing recent imaging work, using MEG, that finds different positions for different vowels in Wernicke's area, and the locations of these positions show a correspondence to their positioning in the traditional vowel quadrilateral. Warning: Some of these papers are very difficult to understand. What we need is a review and evaluation. If these findings can be corroborated, they represent a very important breakthrough.
  8.  Functions of the angular gyrus. Previous work has shown that the angular gyrus at least is involved in reading and in some aspects of lexical processing and conceptual processing. It is likely that the angular gyrus is involved in lexical processing for nouns and perhaps for adjectives, but not for other things, like verbs. It would be valuable to pull together the relevant findings from the literature, especially recent literature, involving this linguistically important area.
  9. Functions of the supramarginal gyrus. The supramarginal gyrus has been implicated in conduction aphasia, and it probably has a role in phonology and in some aspects of lexical and conceptual processing. It would be very valuable to pull together the relevant findings from the literature involving this linguistically important area.
  10. Functions of the middle temporal gyrus. This important area seems to be implicated, along with the angular gyrus, in conceptual and/or lexical information for nouns. It also seems to function as an extenstion of Wernicke's area for second language phonology in some bilinguals. It would be good to have a survey of findings from aphasiology and from imaging studies.
  11. Functions of the insula. This large area, in the depths of the sylvian fissure, is in the language-processing region, and it has been implicated in some aphasic disorders. Since it extends from the frontal lobe to parietal and temporal areas, there are likely to be different functions for different portions of the insule. It would be good to find some significant literature relating to this lange area and try to make some sense of it.
  12. The anterior insula. (See #11.) As the insula is very large, different parts of it have different functions. Some recent work (Dronkers 1996, Ogar et al. 2006) has implicated the anterior insula in speech production. This work (along with any additional recent articles) needs to be reviewed and evaluated. 
  13. Category dissociations in aphasic disorders. There are several papers by Caramazza and various coauthors on this topic. A good synthesis and critical interpretation of this work would be very valuable. Caution: Some of the literature is based on unwarranted and mistaken assumptions about how the brain works. You will want to criticize these shortcomings.
  14.  Linguistic functions of the right hemisphere. There is a lot of literature available. It would be nice to have a good up-to-date synthesis. This area is broad enough to permit work by two or three different students, each with a different emphasis.
  15. Anatomical differences between the RH and LH. Can we account for the functional differences in terms of differing anatomical details? One possible difference: the RH may have fewer inhibitory connections.
  16.  Neuroanatomy of the left temporal lobe. There is a classic very detailed study by Selden published 25 years ago. For many years it has been the standard, but by now there may be more recent findings. A review of both Selden and more recent work would be very helpful.
  17. Music processing. Music resembles language in several important ways. There is interesting evidence on the brain structures that subserve music processing from both aphasiology and brain imaging. It would be good to have a survey, especially of the most recent contributions. Don't undertake this project unless you can expand upon (or do something different from) what was already done by a previous student and is now posted on the langbrain website (click on 'Music Perception')..
  18. Evidence from cortical probes during neurosurgery. This type of study was pioneered by Penfield and Roberts in Montreal, and has been pursued for several years by Dr. Ojemann of the University of Washington in Seattle. It offers instantaneous temporal resolution along with very fine spatial resolution. Now some others are also performing experiments of this type, including Dr. Nitin Tandon of the Texas Medical Center. It would be good to have a survey of recent work. There is also an interesting recent article by Sahin et al. 2009. relating to operations in Broca's area involved in various aspects of linguistic production. There is probably enough here to allow two separate projects.
  19. Evidence from TMS. Transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) is a fairly new technology that has a lot of promise for linguistic investigation. There may be enough out there now to make it worthwhile to bring together a nice synthesis.
  20. Recent research on cortical columns. Work more recent than Mountcastle's 1998 book. Some investigators have been critical of Mountcastle’s theory. It would be good to consider their arguments and, if appropriate, point out what these critics are missing or where they have gone astray.
  21.  Relevant work of Patricia Kuhl and colleages. She has done some very interesting work on early language development with implications for brain operations.
  22. Information on timing of events in linguistic processing from EEG studies. For example, the significance of P600 and N400.
  23. Cortical representation of 2nd language information. It varies a lot among different individuals. One main factor is the age of acquisition of the 2nd language.
  24. Cortical representation of 1st language information in early bilinguals. A related topic would be a review and evaluation of recent findings that the localization of 1st language may be different if a second language is being acquired at the same time , i.e. in early childhood.  


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This page last updated 6 January 2011.

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