Can fMRI reveal the representation of syntactic structure in the brain?

Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 34 pre-proceedings (NeurIPS 2021)

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Aniketh Janardhan Reddy, Leila Wehbe


While studying semantics in the brain, neuroscientists use two approaches. One is to identify areas that are correlated with semantic processing load. Another is to find areas that are predicted by the semantic representation of the stimulus words. However, most studies of syntax have focused only on identifying areas correlated with syntactic processing load. One possible reason for this discrepancy is that representing syntactic structure in an embedding space such that it can be used to model brain activity is a non-trivial computational problem. Another possible reason is that it is unclear if the low signal-to-noise ratio of neuroimaging tools such as functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) can allow us to reveal the correlates of complex (and perhaps subtle) syntactic representations. In this study, we propose novel multi-dimensional features that encode information about the syntactic structure of sentences. Using these features and fMRI recordings of participants reading a natural text, we model the brain representation of syntax. First, we find that our syntactic structure-based features explain additional variance in the brain activity of various parts of the language system, even after controlling for complexity metrics that capture processing load. At the same time, we see that regions well-predicted by syntactic features are distributed in the language system and are not distinguishable from those processing semantics. Our code and data will be available at