How is psycholinguistics studied?

Until recent innovations in the field of neuroscience, brain surgery was one of the only ways for researchers to try and find out how language worked in our brains. This, however, obviously limited the amount of information available, and language obviously was not being used during surgery, and so it was impossible to see the brain in action. They tended to try and affect parts of the brain and then see the result; for example, in the treatment of epilepsy, a bundle of nerves was severed. As such, they could see which parts of the brain affected which parts of language, but obviously this is unethical and does not give a good view of the smaller intricacies of what is happening.

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As the brain is such an integral and delicate part of us humans, how do we get INSIDE it and look at how it works?
 
Neuroimaging

This is the name of various methods of getting an image of the brain in order to work out its structure and its functions, and is a relatively new development.
 
It originated in the early 1900s, with the first "neuroimaging" techniques performed by Walter Dandy, who gathered x-ray images of Cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid the brain essentially "lives" in). These were produced by oxygen or helium being pumped into the brain via a drilled hole in the head, so that the brain would show up more visibly on the x-rays. Obviously, this was of great discomfort to the living participants, and modern methods have rendered methods such as this obselete. His book on this [1] features images that he managed to produce using these methods.
 
There are many new methods of neuroimaging, which allows psychologists and linguists to get a picture of what is happening in the brain. There are many of these new, non-invasive methods, for example include functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) magnetoencephalography, (MEG) and Position emission tomography (PET).
 
One of the current leading methods is fMRI, which studies brain function, and the happenings within the brain by looking at blood flow. This method of scan can be used to map neural acivity in the brain and, since the 1990s, has become the dominant method of brain mapping due to the fact that it does not require any surgery, be exposed to radiation, or need to ingest anything.

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An MRI scan and images produced by using this method
 
A more risky method of study is Position Emission Tomography (PET).This is an invasive measure of blood flow, brain metabolism and glucose consumption.
 
 
The process of a PET scan:[1]
  1. The subject is given a harmless dose of radioactive glucose, which enters the brain
  2. The chemicals then accumulate within the brain. Depending on the different chemical, different regions accumulate different amounts.
  3. PET then measures the participants brain activity by placing a scanner on their head and the information is then represented in colourful maps of the brain.
This method of neuroimaging has to understand the neural basis of the functions of speech, speech comprehension and reading, among many others. As such, though dangerous due to the use of invasive radioactive substances, and high cost, it has been a very useful method to linguists, as well as other people studying in many other areas, and has allowed us to find out information that many once thought would be impossible.
 
 
Reaction Times
 
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"Think before you speak" is probably a saying everyone is more than familiar with, and as such the psychology of reaction times is very important in our language use. How many times have you said something without realising and regretted it straight afterwards? This simple linguistic feature we all share shows how the reactions of different parts of our body that take part in speech are not working completely in sync, and sometimes there can be slip-ups.

Willem Levelt wrote about how reaction times shaped the way our language was used and how it is fundamental to each process of speech, and how the generation of speech involves a number of "processing stages". For example, he talked about how we all do something which is known "self monitoring". This process is subconscious and is when, as we are speaking, we can make errors in pronunciation and grammar, and so we self monitor and, after registering a mistake has been made, react to that, and often that means we go back and repeat these in the proper way, so as to make ourselves understood in the way which we meant in our head, but didn't come out that way when we spoke as the mouth's reaction times were slower than the brain's.

He commented on many of these processes that involved a number of processing stages and so broke them down into an easily understandable, multi part theory of all the different parts of speech which can be found here: http://acl.ldc.upenn.edu/C/C96/C96-1002.pdf
 
So really, everyone thinks before they speak without even realising that we are doing it! These speedy, subconscious processes are just one of the many things that makes the brain so interesting!
 
New areas of study
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Up until recently, the only real way for people to communicate was face-to-face, and if that was not possible then letters would have been used in place. However, with the dawn of new technology and ways of communication such as texting and social networking, this has all changed and there is no longer such emphasis on face-to-face interactions. As such linguists now need to look in depth at these forms of language, and look at what processes are involved in this and they ways in which it affects our everyday life.
 
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For example, in 'Psychology' by G Neil Manderson, Neil R Carlson and William Buskist, it is noted that areas such as this are now being studied in areas such a CMC (computer-mediated communication). They noted that things have developed with such speed, and can change so quickly, that research on the area is still in infancy.
 
However, we do have information, in psychology, a study by Hollingshead (2001) shows some of the findings of research in this area. For example it was found that CMC restricts "non-verbal communication channels and other accompaniments of spoken language". These features of language can be things such as stress, intonation and speed of speech, as well as facial expressions and body language; things which cannot be conveyed via the medium of a computer. As such, it has a detrimental effect on people with whom we have a closer relationship, and CMC can lead us to us to "surpress the amount of information exchanged", which tends to lead to less rich communicative exchanges.
 
It is also thought that users of the internet will be creating 'entirely new social situations and communication behaviours' [2] via online mediums, and as such it would be very interesting to see how these new things have an affect on the development of the brain. As it is so new, it will most likely be our generation, or the one after us, that is used to study the affect as they will be the ones for who these new methods of communication will be available from an early age and possibly birth.

 

References

[1] Buskist, W., Carlson, N. R., and Martin, G. N., (2007). Psychology. 3rd edition.
[2] Kock, N., (2004). The Psychobiological Model: Towards a New Theory of Computer-Mediated Communication Based on Darwinian Evolution.
[3] Levelt, W. J. M., A Theory Of Lexical Access In Speech Production.
[4] Embick, D. and Poeppel, D., (2006). Mapping syntax using imaging: problems and prospects for the study of neurolinguistic computation.
[5] Dandy, W., Rontgenograpgy of the Brain After the Injection of Air Into The Spinal Canal.