Francesca is interested in studying how meaning is mapped onto linguistic structure, and in the underlying neural representations within specialised brain networks. To what extent does our brain represent abstract linguistic symbols (e.g., words, sentences, discourse) as being linked to the sensory, motor, and emotional information derived from our perceptual experience and interactions with the world?
With her initial background in Computational linguistics and ancient languages like Sanskrit, she likes to think of language as a mathematical poetry to be explored cross-linguistically with an interdisciplinary approach. She combines computational, corpus linguistic, and behavioural methods with neuroimaging techniques to compare linguistic patterns with their brain response patterns and uncover the mysteries of how we understand each other when we communicate.
After her PhD in Italy, she worked in France, at the University of Cambridge, Freie Universität and Humboldt Universität in Berlin, before joining the Neural Dynamics of Speech Production and Neurobiology of Language groups at the MPI in Nijmegen.
In her free time, she enjoys traveling and trekking, painting and sketching.
In the language sciences, words like “freedom”, “justice”, and “peace” are classified as abstract concepts, because – unlike concrete words like “car” and “elephant” – they don’t refer to objects in the physical world. Recent studies reveal that in fact abstract concepts are rooted in our experience of emotion and social interaction, and may be less abstract than one may think!
Imagine you only speak your own native language. You find yourself “locked in a room”, let’s say, with a Chinese book, a Chinese dictionary, and a set of rules in your own native language. By applying the rules, you learn to relate the Chinese words in the dictionary to the book, only by recognising the shapes of the characters they contain. You learn to manipulate the strings of Chinese symbols so well that you start to resemble a native Chinese speaker who actually understands Chinese words and sentences. Yet, what you are doing is just manipulating formal symbols without knowing what they mean. Are you behaving any differently than the artificial mind of a computer?
When facing unexpected world changes, as in the case of the current pandemic, the language system adapts to the challenge to express a new reality. How? By forging new words! Let’s find out how this happens by looking at one of the most powerful engines we can count on: our brain.