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Matthew Lowder's Lab

Lab Description

As you read this sentence, you are doing something truly remarkable. You are perceiving visual stimuli of different shapes, knowing these shapes represent letters, recognizing each string of letters as a word, and combining those words together into a structurally coherent, meaningful sentence. How do you accomplish such an amazing feat? It’s easy to take language for granted because it is so central to who we are as humans. Language feels like it comes easily to us, and so we don’t usually think about what an incredibly complex process it is. But why does it seem so effortless? What’s actually going on “behind the scenes”? What are the cognitive processes that allow us to read text or comprehend speech?

The overarching goal of the Lowder Language Lab is to understand the cognitive mechanisms involved in language comprehension. To do this, we rely primarily on eyetracking technology, which allows researchers to monitor participants’ eye movements as they read sentences or view other visual stimuli. This methodology captures eye movements on a millisecond-by-millisecond timescale, which allows us to draw inferences about how language processing unfolds in real time.

Some of the questions we are investigating include:

  • What is the nature of the memory processes that support language comprehension? Our ability to rapidly access the linguistic representations that support successful comprehension requires the effective coordination of multiple cognitive systems including perception, attention, and memory. One area of our research focuses on understanding the nature of the memory processes that contribute to language comprehension at different levels of linguistic representation. This includes questions about the processes of lexical encoding and retrieval that support word recognition, as well as the memory demands placed on the language comprehension system during the processing of complex syntactic structures.
  • How do we represent sentence meaning and sentence structure in the mind, and how do these representations interact? In addressing this question, we are particularly interested in how people process figurative expressions and how the ease or difficulty of processing these expressions might be affected by the structure of the sentence.
  • How can we best account for individual differences in reading behavior? Even among literate adults, substantial variability exists in readers’ abilities to process language. To explain the nature of this variability, we are particularly interested in the role of language experience—that is, we are investigating the possibility that individuals who spend more time reading or have larger vocabularies might exhibit different processing patterns compared to individuals who read less or have smaller vocabularies.
  • To what extent does the language comprehension system predict upcoming linguistic input? Although some researchers argue that prediction is central to language comprehension in general, we are more interested in investigating the specific factors that prompt comprehenders to engage in predictive processing to a stronger versus weaker degree. Some of the factors that we have recently investigated include linguistic cues that signal contrastive focus (such as the construction “not only…but also…”) and speech disfluencies, as when a speaker says “uh” or “um.”