Cognitive and neural underpinnings of syntactic complexity

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Based on a review of the neuroimaging literature, I argue that the resources allocated for processing syntactically complex sentences (i.e., object-extracted relative clauses) are domain-general. Overlapping brain areas are activated by OR clauses and by effortful executive tasks, such as storing information in verbal working memory, resolving conflict among competing representations, and switching one’s mindset. A re-conceptualization of ‘syntactic complexity’ in terms of executive functions provides a useful framework in which to explore its links to relational complexity and to cognitive neuroscience, in general. As such, this approach should prove useful to linguists and cognitive scientists alike.


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