Seminar Series

Structural priming across cognitive domains: From arithmetic to language and back

Linguistic expressions exhibit recursive syntactic structures that can be interpreted compositionally. That is, the interpretation of a complex expression depends on the interpretation of its constituent parts, which can, in principle, be combined in an arbitrarily complex manner. These features are not unique to language, but are also found in various other cognitive domains, such as music and mathematics. In this talk, I will present recent behavioural evidence for shared structural representations between language and arithmetic. First, I will show that the structure of a correctly solved mathematical equation influences the way in which people complete subsequent sentence fragments containing a syntactic attachment ambiguity, and that the strength of this structural priming effect depends on the amount of incremental processing in the equation. Second, I will present evidence showing that structural priming from mathematics to language potentially generalizes to a wide range of different recursive structures, as well as to different tasks. Finally, I will show that this kind of cross-domain structural priming also holds true in the reverse direction, i.e. from language to mathematics. Theoretical implications of these findings will be discussed with additional consideration of recent results on hierarchical structure-building in the brain.