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Undergraduate studies how brain understands basics of language

Published February 19, 2014

How do children’s representations of language differ from those of adults? That’s the question NDSU student researcher Katie Dockter wants to answer.            

Erin Conwell, NDSU assistant professor in psychology, and researchers in her laboratory are looking to find whether the brain is sensitive to differences in the ways speakers produce nouns and verbs. Dockter, a senior psychology major from Fargo, is an important member of the research team. She takes on the task of testing adult participants using electroencephalography, known as EEG, a technique that measures the electrical signals produced by the brain.

“In the English language there are words that can be used interchangeably as nouns and verbs. Young children learn this with no huge confusion for them,” Dockter explained. “In adults we wanted to see if there is that same neural and behavioral activity found when a child hears or processes language.”

In Conwell’s study, the team uses EEG to measures changes in brain activity. The sensors are placed over the adult participant’s scalp and detect changes in the electrical signals produced by the brain. The activity is monitored as participants listen to a set of words cut from sentences and used in the context of a verb or noun. The set of words contains both real English words and made up words.

When analyzing the data, researchers look for an increase in the negativity of the electrical signal after the word has been read to the participant. “When this negativity appears, it indicates the brain has made a cognitive decision about the stimulus it was presented with,” Dockter said.

The team is discovering that the brain is sensitive to acoustic differences between noun and verb uses of the same word.

Participating in research at NDSU is an experience that has taken Dockter’s academic and career goals to the next level. “Research gives you hands-on based learning that you can’t get from sitting in a classroom,” Dockter said. “You actually are experiencing something that interests you for the future.”

Meantime, Conwell said research adds to the educational process.  “Doing research as an undergraduate gives you the opportunity to try out different things, gives you the opportunity to find out what you do and don’t like, and to see if research is right for you,” she said.

Dockter’s future plans include attending graduate school. Although she is still contemplating her career path, her research experience at NDSU has had a definite impact. “I have a special place in my heart now for research, “ Dockter said. “I think it would be absolutely wonderful if that is what I can pursue a career in.”

The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health grants P20 GM103505 (PI: Mark McCourt) and R15 HD077519 (PI: Erin Conwell).


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