Synergy project

In 2018, LiI issued an open external Synergy Call to further trigger and reward innovative, interdisciplinary, and more than “business as usual” research. After careful judgement of all submitted proposals by the Assessment Committee based on the preset criteria, one proposal was granted and the project “Communication in Context” submitted by Dr. Arjen Stolk and Dr. Jana Basnakova. The project started in the fall of 2019.

The dedicated website for the Synergy Project can be found here.

Communication in Context

A major challenge of understanding the human language faculty is to account for the extreme flexibility with which humans employ their words and gestures in everyday communicative interactions. We seem to be endowed with a remarkable ability to rapidly find relevant context for understanding and using intrinsically ambiguous communicative behaviours. The Synergy project aims to understand what counts as context and how that context determines the meaning of an utterance.

Across several interrelated projects, we will test the notion that a large portion of the context is contingent on joint knowledge implied by the ongoing interaction between interlocutors, i.e. a flexible and mutually coordinated ‘shared conceptual space’. First, neural mechanisms will be identified critically supporting shared conceptual spaces by having people interact in novel communicative settings minimizing the need for the use of pre-existing shared representations. This is achieved through dual-fMRI and dual-EEG studies in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) examining the possibility that the poor communication and interaction abilities characteristic of ASD are caused by difficulties in using the conceptual space defined by the ongoing interaction.

Second, neural mechanisms will be identified constraining the meaning of utterances during controlled dialogs. This is achieved through combined eye-tracking and fMRI/EEG studies in ASD individuals quantitatively varying the strength of conflicting semantic constraints on the communicative meaning of verbal and gestural utterances. Overall, using specially designed experimental protocols, the studies aim to provide a new theoretical and empirical foundation for understanding human communication, as well as a new window into understanding and treating disorders of human communication in neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders.

People involved

Steering group

Dr. Jana Basnakova
Coordinator Synergy Project
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Arjen Stolk (@StolkArjen) | Twitter

Dr. Arjen Stolk
Coordinator Synergy Project
Profile page

Team members

Dr. Saskia Koch
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Kexin Cai
Research Assistant

Franziska Goltz
Research Assistant

Jordy van Langen
Research Assistant

Maartje Graauwmans
Research Assistant

PhD Candidate

Margot Mangnus
PhD Candidate
Profile page

Research Highlights (2022)
Highlight 1

On the integration of stereotypes and factual evidence in interpersonal communication*

Team members: Saskia B. J. Koch, Anna Tyborowska , Hannah C. M. Niermann, Antonius H. N. Cillessen, Karin Roelofs, Jana Bašnáková, Ivan Toni & Arjen Stolk

One of the critical features of everyday language use is that it is always adapted to a partner. This project provided an analysis of communicative exchanges of adolescents from the tacit communicative game, in order to elucidate the mechanisms of such communicative adjustments, as well as the neuroanatomical variability and early social life experiences related to this adjustment. 

Using precisely quantified communicative exchanges in 95 adolescents followed since infancy, this longitudinal study shows that there are two sources of knowledge informing real-time communicative adjustment: generalizable stereotypical knowledge about the interlocutor and interaction‐based evidence.  These make complementary, yet neuroanatomically and developmentally dissociable, contributions to understanding other minds in social interaction. Contributions from stereotypes were prominent at the onset of interactions, and individual variation in stereotype‐driven effects correlated with variation in volume and surface of gray matter in the right anterior cingulate gyrus. Contributions from interaction‐based evidence gradually reduced the influence of stereotypes, and the rate of this modulation was predicted by the degree of exposure to social interactions during the first few years of life, over and above effects of familial environment and late social experience. These findings unify previously disparate theories of human social understanding, and suggest that early‐life social experiences have long‐term consequences on how an understanding of mind is constructed in social interaction.

This study is among the first ones quantifying the relative contribution of two sources of evidence to communicative adjustment during unfolding interaction. In addition, we were able to directly relate the relative contribution of both sources of knowledge to individual difference in early social experience, as well as to neuroanatomical variations in brain structure. The findings lend support to the notion of a sensitive developmental period, showing that early‐life social interactions, particularly those outside of the family environment, are crucial in shaping an individual’s ability to tailor communication to an individual partner.

Figure 10. Neuroanatomical and socio‐developmental contributions to stereotype‐ and interaction‐based adjustments. (A) Contributions from stereotypes correlated with gray matter volume in the right anterior cingulate gyrus (ACCg). Statistical effects thresholded at pFWE < 0.05. (B) Contributions from stereotypes also covaried with cortical thickness in ACCg as well as in a distributed right‐hemispheric cortical network showing a degree of overlap with the theory‐of‐mind network. Statistical effects thresholded at pFWE < 0.01. (C) Diminishing contributions from stereotypes during partner transitions 3 through 5 correlated with time spent in daycare during the first few years of life. As seen in Fig. C, this effect coincides with a reduction in stereotype‐driven adjustments across the group, with individuals who spent more time in daycare showing a faster rate of communicative convergence toward the understanding of both partners. Error bars indicate 95% confidence intervals. (D) Scatterplot of the inverse relationship between daycare attendance and stereotype‐driven communicative adjustment averaged across partner transitions 3 through 5 for all participants. Shaded area indicates 95% confidence intervals.

The findings of this project are built on the interdisciplinary Nijmegen longitudinal study following the development of a cohort of children from 1998 until present. The NLS itself is a collaborative project, with this analysis making a unique contribution to understanding language in interaction.  

* This study has been submitted for publication in February 2023. The figure and its caption are part of the submitted manuscript.