Syntax and the Cognitive Neuroscience of Syntactic Structure Building

Jon Sprouse, Norbert Hornstein

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


In this chapter we argue that modern syntactic theories are well-suited to provide a cognitive theory of the structure-building computations that neural systems must perform to process language. Therefore, a plausible research program for cognitive neuroscience would be to search for a theory of: (i) how (populations of) neurons could perform these computations and (ii) which (populations of) neurons are performing these computations during any given language processing event. As syntacticians, this strikes us as the natural evolution of the goals of the cognitive revolution of the 1950s in general, and as the goals of generative syntax in particular. However, we are also aware that this is not how many cognitive neuroscientists would describe current syntactic theory. As such, we provide two concrete examples of the cognitive structure-building computations proposed (from two distinct syntactic theories) and discuss the prospects and challenges of using these theories as a roadmap for a large-scale collaboration between syntacticians and neuroscientists in the search for neuronal instantiations of these computations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationNeurobiology of Language
PublisherElsevier Inc.
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9780124078628
ISBN (Print)9780124077942
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015


  • Cognitive neuroscience
  • Minimalism
  • Neuronal computation
  • Syntax

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Medicine


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