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An approach to separating the levels of hierarchical structure building in language and mathematics

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Makuuchi,  Michiru
Department Neuropsychology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Friederici,  Angela D.
Department Neuropsychology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Makuuchi, M., Bahlmann, J., & Friederici, A. D. (2012). An approach to separating the levels of hierarchical structure building in language and mathematics. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 367(1598), 2033-2045. doi:10.1098/rstb.2012.0095.


Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-000F-81DD-0
Abstract
We aimed to dissociate two levels of hierarchical structure building in language and mathematics, namely ‘first-level’ (the build-up of hierarchical structure with externally given elements) and ‘second-level’ (the build-up of hierarchical structure with internally represented elements produced by first-level processes). Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we investigated these processes in three domains: sentence comprehension, arithmetic calculation (using Reverse Polish notation, which gives two operands followed by an operator) and a working memory control task. All tasks required the build-up of hierarchical structures at the first- and second-level, resulting in a similar computational hierarchy across language and mathematics, as well as in a working memory control task. Using a novel method that estimates the difference in the integration cost for conditions of different trial durations, we found an anterior-to-posterior functional organization in the prefrontal cortex, according to the level of hierarchy. Common to all domains, the ventral premotor cortex (PMv) supports first-level hierarchy building, while the dorsal pars opercularis (POd) subserves second-level hierarchy building, with lower activation for language compared with the other two tasks. These results suggest that the POd and the PMv support domain-general mechanisms for hierarchical structure building, with the POd being uniquely efficient for language.