Neural correlates of prosody and information structure
01 / 2007 - 05 / 2012
Diana Dimitrova investigates what neurocognitive processes are activated in the brain when listeners comprehend spoken language and in particular the melody and rhythm of speech, also referred to as prosody. The findings of several electrophysiological studies show that prosody influences the early and late stages of spoken language processing. When words are accented, listeners consider them important, and the brain responds to accentuation already 200 milliseconds after stimulus onset. The processing of prosodic prominence occurs whether or not a context is present and whether or not accent is congruent with context, although the responses to accentuation may be modified by either of these factors and by the focus particle only. Listeners are sensitive not only to the presence of prosodic prominence but also to the type of accents speakers use: corrective prosody activates additional interpretation mechanisms related to the construction of corrective meaning. The parallel between accents across clauses impacts the disambiguation of clauses with verb ellipsis. By interpreting prosodically parallel elements as syntactically parallel, listeners arrive at less preferred interpretation of conjoined clauses. The research identifies early correlates of incongruous prosody in strongly predictive on texts as well as late integration processes for incongruous prosody, which are related to the processing of structural complexity in isolated and ambiguous sentences. The dissertation provides evidence that the brain is sensitive to differences in prosody even in the absence of prosodic judgment. However, by changing the task, one modulates the neural mechanisms of prosody processing.