Cleaning up the brickyard: How theory and methodology shape experiments in cognitive neuroscience of language


The capacity for language is a defining property of our species, yet despite decades of research evidence on its neural basis is still mixed and a generalized consensus is difficult to achieve. We suggest that this is partly caused by researchers defining “language” in different ways, with focus on a wide range of phenomena, properties, and levels of investigation. Accordingly, there is very little agreement amongst cognitive neuroscientists of language on the operationalization of fundamental concepts to be investigated in neuroscientific experiments. Here, we review chains of derivation in the cognitive neuroscience of language, focusing on how the hypothesis under consideration is defined by a combination of theoretical and methodological assumptions. We first attempt to disentangle the complex relationship between linguistics, psychology, and neuroscience in the field. Next, we focus on how conclusions that can be drawn from any experiment are inherently constrained by auxiliary assumptions, both theoretical and methodological, on which the validity of conclusions drawn rests. These issues are discussed in the context of classical experimental manipulations as well as study designs that employ novel approaches such as naturalistic stimuli and computational modelling. We conclude by proposing that a highly interdisciplinary field such as the cognitive neuroscience of language requires researchers to form explicit statements concerning the theoretical definitions, methodological choices, and other constraining factors involved in their work.

Padova, Italy and online