According to most linguists, the syntactic structure of sentences involves a tree-like hierarchy of nested phrases, as in the sentence [happy linguists] [draw [a diagram]]. Here, we searched for the neural implementation of this hypothetical construct. Epileptic patients volunteered to perform a language task while implanted with intracranial electrodes for clinical purposes. While patients read sentences one word at a time, neural activation in left-hemisphere language areas increased with each successive word but decreased suddenly whenever words could be merged into a phrase. This may be the neural footprint of “merge,” a fundamental tree-building operation that has been hypothesized to allow for the recursive properties of human language.Abstract
Although sentences unfold sequentially, one word at a time, most linguistic theories propose that their underlying syntactic structure involves a tree of nested phrases rather than a linear sequence of words. Whether and how the brain builds such structures, however, remains largely unknown. Here, we used human intracranial recordings and visual word-by-word presentation of sentences and word lists to investigate how left-hemispheric brain activity varies during the formation of phrase structures. In a broad set of language-related areas, comprising multiple superior temporal and inferior frontal sites, high-gamma power increased with each successive word in a sentence but decreased suddenly whenever words could be merged into a phrase. Regression analyses showed that each additional word or multiword phrase contributed a similar amount of additional brain activity, providing evidence for a merge operation that applies equally to linguistic objects of arbitrary complexity. More superficial models of language, based solely on sequential transition probability over lexical and syntactic categories, only captured activity in the posterior middle temporal gyrus. Formal model comparison indicated that the model of multiword phrase construction provided a better fit than probability-based models at most sites in superior temporal and inferior frontal cortices. Activity in those regions was consistent with a neural implementation of a bottom-up or left-corner parser of the incoming language stream. Our results provide initial intracranial evidence for the neurophysiological reality of the merge operation postulated by linguists and suggest that the brain compresses syntactically well-formed sequences of words into a hierarchy of nested phrases.