UCLA Department of Psychology
Two cognitive capacities that “make us human” are our ability to communicate via language and our executive functions (working memory, cognitive control, inhibition, etc.), both unparalleled in the animal kingdom. Language comprehension is mainly carried out by specialized mechanisms that are language-specific and are not engaged in other high-level cognitive functions; in contrast, executive functions constitute a general resource that is shared across diverse cognitive domains. Are these two capacities related to one another? On the one hand, much research has found that comprehension, in addition to its reliance on domain-specific mechanisms, is critically supported by executive functions. On the other hand, those studies are overwhelmingly based on cleverly designed artificial tasks, which effectively turn language into an “IQ test” and do not mimic real-world comprehension “in the wild”. In this talk, I will describe studies that instead employ naturalistic paradigms in fMRI to test how executive functions contribute to comprehension. Through a combination of data-driven analyses, psycholinguistic constructs, and brain-behavior correlations, the findings challenge two decades of research about the role of executive resources in comprehension.