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Language and affect: how comprehension depends on how we feel and what we care about


Van Berkum,  Jos J. A.
Neurobiology of Language Group, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Language in Action , MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Van Berkum, J. J. A. (2009). Language and affect: how comprehension depends on how we feel and what we care about. Talk presented at 15th Annual Conference on Architectures and Mechanisms for Language Processing (AMLaP 2009). Barcelona, Spain. 2009-09-07 - 2009-09-09.

Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0013-3D20-B
In everyday language use, people don’t just engage in parsing, the derivation of propositions, and the construction of situation models, they also often care about what’s being asserted or implied. So, when Herb Clark expresses “I’m hot” in a card game with his son (Clark, 1997), Herb’s son is probably not just inferring that he’s about to lose – he’ll also have certain feelings about this. If he strongly values winning, he may feel bad, but if he had decided he was finally going to let his poor dad win for once, he may actually feel great. The traditional demarcation lines in cognitive science define all of the latter as post-perceptual, post-inferential consequences of computing statement and speaker meaning, and as such irrelevant to the enterprise of psycholinguistics. However, the critical assumption that justifies this perspective is that the processes involved in language interpretation are insensitive to how the listener might feel about certain things: these processes are just parsing and delivering the message for other neural systems to work with. But what if this assumption is wrong? What if how we feel aboutthings can actually influence the way we process language? I will discuss several ERP experiments that address this question. In one recent study, we examined how mood modulates heuristic conceptual anticipation and 'algorithmic' syntactic parsing in sentence comprehension (De Goede, Van Alphen, Mulder, Kerstholt & Van Berkum, forthcoming). In other work, we looked at how a person's value system -- i.e., what he or she cares about -- affects the incremental processing of attitude survey statements (Van Berkum, Holleman, Nieuwland, Otten, & Murre, in press). In both lines of work, we observe that how people feel can rapidly and non-trivially modulate language comprehension as it unfolds. One problem in systematically exploring these issues is that because language, values, and affective factors such as mood are studied in relatively unconnected disciplines, there is as yet little theory that connects the three. Thus, our initial explorations of the language-affect interface necessarily only scratch the surface, and a much more comprehensive research effort is needed. I will make the case that, next to situating language in the context of perception and action (the currently dominant focus in embodied comprehension research), it will be essential to reconnect language to what people feel and care about.