Current Projects: Neurobiology of Language

Functional Neuroanatomy of Taboo Word Processing

Taboo words (i.e., “expletives,” “curse words,” “obscenities,” “swear words,” “profanity,” etc.) are an evocative subset of the lexicon that are highly context-contingent. They are often, though not always, used at the extreme ends of the valence spectrum to convey highly negative (“f*** you!”) or positive (“f*** yes!”) affect. Relatedly, they are frequently expressed during moments of high affective arousal; however, they may also be used in moments of low arousal, e.g., as fillers. Their tabooness originates from their literal meanings (reference to body parts, sexual acts, religiosity, etc.), yet their use in context is more often abstract. It has been previously shown that these factors (valence, arousal, concreteness) play a fundamental role in differentiating taboo word use from that of other words. We investigate brain activity during perception of these words, and find that core affective regions associated with cognitive processing of these factors (e.g., amygdala, cingulate cortex, insula, prefrontal cortex, precuneus, cerebellum) are modulated by the perception of taboo words. We are also studying contextually dependent usage.


Neural Network Models of the Neurobiology of Language

We distinguished 4 region types based on anatomical considerations: (i) gyral regions at borders between cortical communities; (ii) gyral regions within communities; (iii) sulcal regions at invariant locations across subjects; and (iv) other sulcal regions. Region types showed strikingly different anatomical and connection properties. Results allowed complementing the current understanding of the brain’s communication structure with a model of its anatomical underpinnings.