Finding structure during incremental speech comprehension

  1. Changping Laboratory, Beijing, 102206, China
  2. Centre for Speech, Language and the Brain, Department of Psychology, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, CB2 3EB, United Kingdom


  • Reviewing Editor
    Nai Ding
    Zhejiang University, Hangzhou, China
  • Senior Editor
    Yanchao Bi
    Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China

Reviewer #1 (Public Review):

In this study, the authors investigate where and when brain activity is modulated by incoming linguistic cues during sentence comprehension. Sentence stimuli were designed such that incoming words had varying degrees of constraint on the sentence's structural interpretation as participants listened to them unfolding, i.e. due to varying degrees of verb transitivity and the noun's likelihood of assuming a specific thematic role. Word-by-word "online" structural interpretations for each sentence were extracted from a deep neural network model trained to reproduce language statistics. The authors relate the various metrics of word-by-word predicted sentence structure to brain data through a standard RSA approach at three distinct points of time throughout sentence presentation. The data provide convincing evidence that brain activity reflects preceding linguistic constraints as well as integration difficulty immediately after word onset of disambiguating material.

The authors confirm that their sentence stimuli vary in degree of constraint on sentence structure through independent behavioral data from a sentence continuation task. They also show a compelling correlation of these behavioral data with the online structure metric extracted from the deep neural network, which seems to pick up on the variation in constraints. In the introduction, the authors argue for the potential benefits of using deep neural network-derived metrics given that it has "historically been challenging to model the dynamic interplay between various types of linguistic and nonlinguistic information". Similarly, they later conclude that "future DLMs (...) may provide new insights into the neural implementation of the various incremental processing operations(...)".

By incorporating structural probing of a deep neural network, a technique developed in the field of natural language processing, into the analysis pipeline for investigating brain data, the authors indeed take an important step towards establishing advanced machine learning techniques for researching the neurobiology of language. However, given the popularity of deep neural networks, an argument for their utility should be carefully evidenced. However, the data presented here don't directly test how large the benefit provided by this tool really is. In fact, the authors show compelling correlations of the neural network-derived metrics with both the behavioral cloze-test data as well as several (corpus-)derived metrics. While this is a convincing illustration of how deep language models can be made more interpretable, it is in itself not novel. The correlation with behavioral data and corpus statistics also raises the question of what is the additional benefit of the computational model? Is it simply saving us the step of not having to collect the behavioral data, not having to compute the corpus statistics or does the model potentially uncover a more nuanced representation of the online comprehension process? This remains unclear because we are lacking a direct comparison of how much variance in the neural data is explained by the neural network-derived metrics beyond those other metrics (for example the main verb probability or the corpus-derived "active index" following the prepositional phrase).

With regards to the neural data, the authors show convincing evidence for early modulations of brain activity by linguistic constraints on sentence structure and importantly early modulation by the coherence between multiple constraints to be integrated. Those modulations can be observed across bilateral frontal and temporal areas as well as parts of the default mode network. The methods used are clear and rigorous and allow for a detailed exploration of how multiple linguistic cues are neurally encoded and dynamically shape the final representation of a sentence in the brain. However, at times the consequences of the RSA results remain somewhat vague with regard to the motivation behind different metrics and how they differ from each other. Therefore, some results seem surprising and warrant further discussion, for example:

Why does the neural network-derived parse depth metric fit neural data before the V1 uniqueness point if the sentence pairs begin with the same noun phrase? This suggests that the lexical information preceding V1, is driving the results. However, given the additional results, we can already exclude an influence of subject likelihood for a specific thematic role as this did not model the neural data in the V1 epoch to a significant degree. Relatedly, In Fig 2C it seems there are systematic differences between HiTrans and LoTrans sentences regarding the parse depth of determiner and subject noun according to the neural network model, while this is not expected according to the context-free parse.

"The degree of this mismatch is proportional to the evidence for or against the two interpretations (...). Besides these two measures based on the entire incremental input, we also focused on Verb1 since the potential structural ambiguity lies in whether Verb1 is interpreted as a passive verb or the main verb."

The neural data fits in V1 epoch differ in their temporal profile for the mismatch metrics and the Verb 1 depth respectively. I understand the "degree of mismatch" to be a measure of how strongly the neural network's hidden representations align with the parse depth of an active or passive sentence structure. If this is correct, then it is not clear from the text how far this measure differs from the Verb 1 depth alone, which is also indicating either an active or passive structure.

In previous studies, differences in neural activity related to distinct amounts of open nodes in the parse tree have been interpreted in terms of distinct working memory demands (Nelson et al. pnas 2017, Udden et al tics 2020). It seems that some of the metrics, for example the neural network-derived parse depth or the V1 depth may be similarly interpreted in the light of working memory demands. After all, during V1 epoch, the sentences do not only differ with respect to predicted sentence structure, but also in the amount of open nodes that need to be maintained. In the discussion, however, the authors interpret these results as "neural representations of an unfolding sentence's structure".

Reviewer #2 (Public Review):

This article is focused on investigating incremental speech processing, as it pertains to building higher-order syntactic structure. This is an important question because speech processing in general is lesser studied as compared to reading, and syntactic processes are lesser studied than lower-level sensory processes. The authors claim to shed light on the neural processes that build structured linguistic interpretations. The authors apply modern analysis techniques, and use state-of-the-art large language models in order to facilitate this investigation. They apply this to a cleverly designed experimental paradigm of EMEG data, and compare neural responses of human participants to the activation profiles in different layers of the BERT language model.


[1] The study aims to investigate an under-explored aspect of language processing, namely syntactic operations during speech processing

[2] The study is taking advantage of technological advancements in large language models, while also taking linguistic theory into account in building the hypothesis space

[3] The data combine EEG and MEG, which provides a valuable spatio-temporally resolved dataset

[4] The use of behavioural validation of high/low transitive was an elegant demonstration of the validity of their stimuli


[1] The manuscript is quite hard to understand, even for someone well-versed in both linguistic theory and LLMs. The questions, design, analysis approach, and conclusions are all quite dense and not easy to follow.

[2] The analyses end up seeming overly complicated when the underlying difference between sentence types is a simple categorical distinction between high and low transitivity. I am not sure why tree depth and BERT are being used to evaluate the degree to which a sentence is being processed as active or passive. If this is necessary, it would be helpful for the authors to motivate this more clearly.

[3] The main data result figures comparing BERT and the EMEG brain data are hard to evaluate because only t-values are provided, and those, only for significant clusters. It would be helpful to see the full 600 ms time course of rho values, with error bars across subjects, to really be able to evaluate it visually. This is a summary statistic that is very far away from the input data

[4] Some details are omitted or not explained clearly. For example, how was BERT masked to give word-by-word predictions? In its default form, I believe that BERT takes in a set of words before and after the keyword that it is predicting. But I assume that here the model is not allowed to see linguistic information in the future. How were the auditory stimuli recorded? Was it continuous speech or silences between each word? How was prosody controlled? Was it a natural speaker or a speech synthesiser?

It is difficult for me to fully assess the extent to which the authors achieved their aims, because I am missing important information about the setup of the experiment and the distribution of test statistics across subjects.

Reviewer #3 (Public Review):

Syntactic parsing is a highly dynamic process: When an incoming word is inconsistent with the presumed syntactic structure, the brain has to reanalyze the sentence and construct an alternative syntactic structure. Since syntactic parsing is a hidden process, it is challenging to describe the syntactic structure a listener internally constructs at each time moment. Here, the authors overcome this problem by (1) asking listeners to complete a sentence at some break point to probe the syntactic structure mentally constructed at the break point, and (2) using a DNN model to extract the most likely structure a listener may extract at a time moment. After obtaining incremental syntactic features using the DNN model, the authors analyze how these syntactic features are represented in the brain using MEG.

Although the analyses are detailed, the current conclusion needs to be further specified. For example, in the abstract, it is concluded that "Our results reveal a detailed picture of the neurobiological processes involved in building structured interpretations through the integration across multifaceted constraints". The readers may remain puzzled after reading this conclusion.

Similarly, for the second part of the conclusion, i.e., "including an extensive set of bilateral brain regions beyond the classical fronto-temporal language system, which sheds light on the distributed nature of language processing in the brain."
The more extensive cortical activation may be attributed to the spatial resolution of MEG, and it is quite well acknowledged that language processing is quite distributive in the brain.

The authors should also discuss:

(1) individual differences (whether the BERT representation is a good enough approximation of the mental representation of individual listeners).

(2) parallel parsing (I think the framework here should allow the brain to maintain parallel representations of different syntactic structures but the analysis does not consider parallel representations).

  1. Howard Hughes Medical Institute
  2. Wellcome Trust
  3. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft
  4. Knut and Alice Wallenberg Foundation