Syntactic structure building in the anterior temporal lobe during natural story listening

Jonathan Brennan, Yuval Nir, Uri Hasson, Rafael Malach, David J. Heeger, Liina Pylkkänen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

166 Scopus citations


The neural basis of syntax is a matter of substantial debate. In particular, the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), or Broca's area, has been prominently linked to syntactic processing, but the anterior temporal lobe has been reported to be activated instead of IFG when manipulating the presence of syntactic structure. These findings are difficult to reconcile because they rely on different laboratory tasks which tap into distinct computations, and may only indirectly relate to natural sentence processing. Here we assessed neural correlates of syntactic structure building in natural language comprehension, free from artificial task demands. Subjects passively listened to Alice in Wonderland during functional magnetic resonance imaging and we correlated brain activity with a word-by-word measure of the amount syntactic structure analyzed. Syntactic structure building correlated with activity in the left anterior temporal lobe, but there was no evidence for a correlation between syntactic structure building and activity in inferior frontal areas. Our results suggest that the anterior temporal lobe computes syntactic structure under natural conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)163-173
Number of pages11
JournalBrain and Language
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2012

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Speech and Hearing
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


  • ATL
  • Language
  • Neuroimaging
  • Syntax


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