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University of Silesia in Katowice

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Freedom of Research | ‘The pizza was too hot to scream’

08.05.2023 - 16:03 update 16.05.2023 - 15:26
Editors: OO



‘Freedom of Research – Science for the Future’ series consists of articles, interviews and short videos presenting research conducted by the winners of the ‘Freedom of Research’ call for proposals

Witold Marzęda, PhD

‘The pizza was too hot to scream’

| Olimpia Orządała |

What happens in our brain when we hear such a sentence as ‘descending up the stairway’? What are the simulation hypothesis and the deictic contradiction? Witold Marzęda, PhD from the Faculty of Humanities of the University of Silesia in Katowice, winner of the second edition of the ‘Freedom of Research’ call for proposals of the Research Excellence Initiative, researches these issues.

Cognitive semantics, a field combining elements of literary studies, philosophy, and psychology, is one of his scientific interests. Its central thesis is that the grammars of natural languages reflect cognitive processes (such as those related to attention, memory, or the way we perceive the world).

dr Witold Marzęda
Witold Marzęda, PhD | Photo by Małgorzata Dymowska


‘Usually, cognitive semantics is associated with the so-called embodiment hypothesis or embodied cognition. When it comes to research, the embodied simulation hypothesis is particularly interesting to me’, says W. Marzęda, PhD. This theory states that the understanding and the creation of a language happens in those brain structures, which are responsible for the actual performance of the action. When we talk about an activity, even though we are not performing it, patterns corresponding to the activities appear in our nervous system. ‘For example, if we close our eyes and talk about looking at something, the visual cortex activates anyway. And when we talk about catching something, the motor cortex responsible for our hands activates’, explains the scientists.

As part of the ‘Freedom of Research’ call for proposals, W. Marzęda, PhD, undertook a fellowship at the University of Ulm in Germany, where he learned how to carry out an EEG (electroencephalography), which allows monitoring brain activity with specially designed equipment. ‘I have not had much experience with EEG, so during the fellowship I was able to learn step by step, starting from putting on the cap to data analysis’, says the researcher.

Electroencephalography was developed in the 1920s. It is not as precise as functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — EEG does not allow us to pinpoint exactly which part of the brain is activating, only to determine roughly where some activity is occurring. The EEG is used in medicine (to locate epileptic foci, among others) and cognitive science. The most common EEG method is the so-called ERP (event-related potentials), i.e. evoked potentials.

‘ERP involves presenting a stimulus to the subject, e.g. visual, auditory, or tactile, and then we see how to brain reacts to it. Test participants wear a cap with electrodes attached, which are able to record the activity of grey matter pyramidal nerve cells in the cerebral cortex. This allows us to observe how this electrical activity develops under the influence of certain stimuli down to a millisecond. The EEG signal from the brain is completely different when the person under examination is relaxed, with eyes closed, and different when they are watching or listening to something. On the graph presenting the EEG signal, the so-called waveforms appear’, add the scientist.

In his research W. Marzęda, PhD attempts to check if deictically contradictory sentences that are grammatically correct but do not form a coherent whole and are unintelligible (e.g. descending up the stairs), evoke other EEG values than anacoluthons that can be understood despite violating grammatical rules (e.g. my want give your present). Research findings can confirm or disprove the embodied simulation hypothesis.

‘I coined the term deictic contradiction. As far as I know, it does not occur anywhere in the literature’, admits the scientist. ‘A contradiction in logic is when we have a conjunction of a sentence with its negation. Here, however, the contradiction is understood a little more broadly.

The deixis is part of the language used to indicate; it is divided into personal, temporal, spatial and social. These are primarily pronouns, adverbs, and demonstratives, e.g. ‘here’, ‘now’, ‘tomorrow’, ‘I’, ‘you’, and ‘Mrs’. These are the elements of language whose understanding requires being in a given situation’, says W. Marzęda, PhD. ‘The word ‘I’ is used by everyone, but it is only when it is uttered that we know to whom it refers. Deictic contradictions are expressions, which block understanding. A simple example is the disruption of the noun-verb agreement. We can say ‘people are walking’ but not ‘people walks’, explains the researcher.

The USil scientists is particularly interested in expressions in which the simulation embodied vectors are distorted. Examples may include: ‘Descending up the stairs’ and ‘I am standing in a meadow and my arms are danging upwards’. Such situations are hard to imagine. ‘If the simulation hypothesis is correct, then we should not be able to understand these sentences’, admits W. Marzęda, PhD.

The researcher attempts to determine, based on EEG readings, what is the difference in our understanding of correct sentences, anacoluthons (syntactically incorrect), and deictically contradictory sentences. In his opinion, the graph should show interesting waveforms. ‘There is this research by Marta Kutas from the University of California, which shows the famous N400 waveform. It appears when the sentence loses its meaning or does not develop in the way we have expected’, says the winner of the ‘Freedom of Research’ call for proposals. A classic example is: ‘The pizza was too hot to scream’. The graph shows the N400 waveform when we reach the word ‘scream’.

Doing research on the deictic contradictions is by no means easy. W. Marzęda, PhD, admits that the sentences are often quite long — usually, you need around one to two seconds to utter them. EEG, however, works on quick stimuli. Therefore, the language material must be carefully prepared.

‘Anacolutes and deictic contradictions are something I would like to research, says the USil scientist. ‘In the long term, I would like to look into the philosophical hypothesis that the knowledge of when is now, before, where is up, down, who is who in my flock, i.e. the ability to orient myself in time, space, and social space, is what is commonly called consciousness’. If the EEG study is successful and shows that deixis is a key element of language, then I would like to prove that understanding or having deictic competence is actually the same thing as what we colloquially call consciousness, adds W. Marzęda, PhD.

Recently, a cognitive science lab allowing scientists to conduct advanced research was established at the University of Silesia. Among other things, it houses EEG equipment to be used by the employees of the University of Silesia.

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