Professor of Psychology
Cognition & Perception, Social


My research focuses on the cognitive structures and processes that enable language comprehension, as well as more general issues concerning basic mechanisms in human memory, particularly Working Memory, and visual attention.

Click here for a current list of publications.


Language comprehension requires the retrieval and processing of conceptually distinct types of linguistic knowledge. My research seeks to identify the lexical, syntactic, and semantic information that mediate sentence comprehension, and to model the cognitive processes that use this information to map form to meaning. Two curent projects are described below.

Semantic interpretation. Language comprehension consists of several operations ranging from the identification of individual words to the construction of a suitable interpretation for a complete text or utterance. Although much progress has been made in understanding different facets of this system, little is known about semantic composition, that is, how a contextually suitable interpretation for a sentential expression is derived from the products of lexical and syntactic analyses. Compositional processes provide the crucial interface between lexical and syntactic processing on one hand and discourse and text comprehension on the other. We are attemtpting to advance our understanding of this critical interface by identifying the essential processes and knowledge structures used in composition.

Traditional views of composition holds that the lexical representations of sentential constituents are simply combined in a manner that is informed by syntactic structure. However, recent formal analyses of common and seemingly simple expressions suggest that a substantially more complex mechanism is needed to compute contextually appropriate interpretations. Compositional processes appear to enrich the meaning of expressions by modifying default interpretations of individual constituents (sense extension). Often, this is accomplished by generating semantic structure not explicitly represented in the sentence or discourse. Our recent work has provided behavioral evidence in support of this position, demonstrating that expressions argued to require an enriched form of composition are costly to process.

An overview of this work can be found in Pylkkänen, L.& McElree, B. (2006). The syntax-semantics interface: On-line composition of sentence meaning. In M. Traxler & M.A. Gernsbacher (eds.), Handbook of Psycholinguistics (2nd Ed). NY: Elsevier. An NSF abstract provides a short abstract of the project.


Some findings on expressions requiring coercion, a type of enriched composition:

1) Semantic coercion engenders a processing cost in reading, as evidenced by eye-movement data during reading (from Pickering, McElree, & Traxler, 2005).


2) Semantic coercion slows the time course of interpretation (from McElree, Pylkkänen, Pickering, & Traxler, 2006).

3) Semantic coercion modulates a ventromedial prefrontal source in a 350-500ms time-window, generating more activity in this source than either the anomalous or simpler control sentences (from Pylkkänen, Llinas, & McElree, 2004).

Some relevant papers

  • Pickering, M. J., McElree, B., Frisson, S., Chin, L., & Traxler, M. (submitted). Aspectual coercion and underspecification. [pdf]
  • Pylkkänen, L. & McElree, B. (in press). The syntax-semantics interface: On-line composition of sentence meaning. In M. Traxler & M.A. Gernsbacher (eds.), Handbook of Psycholinguistics (2nd Ed). NY: Elsevier. [pdf]
  • McElree, B., Pylkkänen, L., Pickering, M.J., & Traxler, M. (in press). The time course of enriched composition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review. [pdf]
  • McElree, B., Frisson, S., & Pickering, M.J. (2006). Deferrred interpretations: Why starting Dickens is taxing but reading Dickens isn't. Cogntive Science, 30, 113-124. [pdf]
  • Traxler, M., McElree, B., Williams, R. S. & Pickering, M.J. (2005). Context effects in coercion: Evidence from eye-movements. Journal of Memory and Language, 53, 1-25. [pdf]
  • Pickering, M. J., McElree, B., & Traxler, M. (2005). The difficulty of coercion: A response to de Almeida. Brain & Language, 93, 1-9. [pdf]
  •  Pickering, M.J., Frisson, S., McElree, B., & Traxler, M., (2004). Eye movements and semantic composition.  In M. Carreiras and C. Clifton, Jr. (Eds.), The on-line study of sentence comprehension: Eyetracking, ERPs, and beyond. Hove: Psychology Press. [pdf]
  • Traxler, M., Pickering, M.J., & McElree, B. (2002). Coercion in sentence processing: Evidence from eye-movements and self-paced reading. Journal of Memory and Language, 4, 530-547. [pdf]
  • McElree, B., Traxler, M., Pickering, M.J., Seely, R, & Jackendoff, R. (2001). Reading time evidence for enriched composition. Cognition, 78, B17-B25. [pdf]

Complete list of current papers

Working Memory (WM) in langauge comprehension. Successful language comprehension often requires the comprehender to access to memory representations to resolve dependencies between nonadjacent constituents (e.g., filler-gap dependencies, anaphoric relations). We are investigating how comprehenders access previously processed constituents during on-line comprehension as a means of exploring the nature of the WM representations that subserve language processing. Our apporach is informed by techniques and findings from basic research on memory. Our findings suggest that comprehension is supported by memory representations that are content addressable: syntactic and semantic constraints provide direct access to relevant representations without the need to search through potentially irrelevant information.

Some relevant papers

  • Van Dyke, J. A., & McElree, B. (submitted). Retrieval interference in sentence omprehension. [pdf]
  • McElree, B., Foraker, S. & Dyer, L. (2003). Memory structures that subserve sentence comprehension. Journal of Memory and Language, 48, 67-91. [pdf]
  • McElree, B. (2000). Sentence comprehension is mediated by content-addressable memory structures. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 29, 111-123. [pdf]

Complete list of current papers


Human Memory. Working Memory (WM) structures subserve most complex cognitive abilities, including language production and comprehension, reasoning, and problem solving. I am currently studying how different types of visual, auditory, and linguistic information are stored in and retrieved from WM.

Working Memory and Attention. The relationship between attention and WM has been an issue since William James (1890) equated the two. In recent theorizing, however, a distinction is often drawn between WM structures that are the focus of active processing and those that have residual activation as a consequence of recent processing. The former are viewed as those structures that are the current object(s) of attention or awareness. The latter are structures that are outside the scope of attention, yet, as a consequence of recent processing, have a privileged status over less recently processed long-term memory structures, either by having a temporary representation in a specialized store or by having residual activation in a long-term representation.

If one posits a distinct WM system, as illustrated in Figure 1a, information can be represented in three possible states, either in LTM, in WM, or in the current focus of attention. Different forms of evidence have been used to motivate this type of tripartite architecture (e.g., Cowan, 1995, 2001). However, the evidence is indirect and can be challenged on several grounds. We have argued that measures of retrieval speed provide the most direct evidence for distinct representational states (e.g., McElree & Dosher, 1989; McElree, 1996, 1998, 2001, 2006) . Although by happenstance different representational states may be equally accessible, a natural prediction of tripartite architecture is that 3 distinct retrieval speeds should be observed. Information in focal attention should exhibit privileged access. Less recent representations-those that are beyond the capacity of focal attention but still within the span of WM-should be accessed slower than items within the focus of attention, but faster than LTM representations in a passive state.

Studies of retrieval of recent events have demonstrated that retrieval is exceptionally fast when information can be maintained in focal attention (for a review, see McElree, B., 2006). Crucially, however, we do note find evidence for a qualitative or quantitative "break-point" between what a tripartite architecture posits as the divide between WM and LTM. Collectively, the temporal dynamics of retrieval are indicative of two rather than three representational states.

In current research, we are exploring the capacity of focal attentional and whether what is traditionally viewed as working memory might be more properly viewed as the rapid shunting of information between attended states and passive states. An overview of this work can be found in.McElree, B. (2006). Accessing recent events. In B. H. Ross (Ed.), The psychology of learning and motivation, Vol. 46. San Diego: Academic Press.

Some relevant papers

  • McElree, B. (2001). Working memory and focal attention. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 27, 817-835. [pdf]
  • McElree, B. & Dosher, B. A. (2001). The focus of attention across space and time. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24, 129-130.
  • McElree, B. (1998). Attended and non-attended states in working memory: Accessing categorized structures. Journal of Memory & Language, 38, 225-252. [pdf]
  • McElree, B. (1996). Accessing short-term memory with semantic and phonological information: A time-course analysis. Memory & Cognition, 24, 173-187.[pdf]
  • McElree, B. & Dosher, B.A. (1993). Serial retrieval processes in the recovery of order information. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 122, 291-315. [pdf]
  • McElree, B. & Dosher, B.A. (1989). Serial position and set size in short-term memory: Time course of recognition. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 18, 346-373. [pdf]

Other memory research

  • Öztekin, I., & McElree, B. (submitted). Retrieval dynamics of proactive interference: PI slows retrieval by eliminating fast assessments of familiarity. [pdf]
  • McElree, B., Dolan, P. O., & Jacoby, L. L., (1999). Isolating the contributions of familiarity and source information in item recognition: A time-course analysis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 25, 563-582. [pdf]
  • Jacoby, L. J., McElree, B., & Trainham, T. N. (1999). Automatic influences as accessibility bias in memory and Stroop-like tasks: Toward a formal model. In A. Koriat & D. Gopher (Eds.) Attention & Performance XVII:Cognitive Regulation of Performance: Interaction of Theory and Application. Cambridge: MIT Press.
  • Dosher, B. A., McElree, B., Hood, R. M., & Rosedale, G. R. (1989). Retrieval dynamics of priming in recognition memory:Bias and discrimination analysis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory & Cognition, 15, 868-886. [pdf]

Complete list of current papers


Visual Attention. Covert attention allows us to select visual information at a spatial location, without eye movements, and to grant this information priority in processing. Covert attention improves discriminability in a wide variety of visual tasks. In collaborative projects with Marisa Carrasco's lab, we have demonstrated that covert attention not only improves discriminability but also accelerates the rate of information processing. We are also using measures of the dynamics of visual processing to test models of visual attention and to examine how different visual factors (e.g., eccentricity) affect the speed of visual information processing


Some relevant papers

  • Carrasco, M., Giordano, A. M., & McElree, B. (in press). Attention speeds processing across eccentricity: Feature and conjunction searches. Vision Research.[pdf]
  • Carrasco, M., Giordano, A. M., & McElree, B. (2004). Temporal perfromance fields: Visual and attentional factors. Vision Research, 44(12), 1351-1365.[pdf]
  • Carrasco, M., McElree, B., Denisova, K., & Giordano, A. M. (2003). The speed of visual information processing increases with eccentricity. Nature Neuroscience, 6(7): 669-670.[pdf] [supplemental materials]
  • Carrasco, M. & McElree, B. (2001). Covert attention speeds the accrual of visual information. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 98, 5341-5436. [pdf]
  • McElree, B., & Carrasco, M., (1999). The temporal dynamics of visual search: Speed-accuracy tradeoff analysis of feature and conjunctive searches. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception & Performance, 25, 1517-1539. [pdf]
  • McElree, B., & Carrasco, M., (1998). Speed-accuracy tradeoff analysis of the temporal dynamics of visual search. Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences Abstracts, 39(4), s224.

Complete list of current papers

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Brian McElree received his Ph.D. in experimental psychology in 1990 from Columbia University. While at Columbia, he studied psycholinguistics with Tom Bever and human memory with Barbara Dosher. After his graduate studies, he worked for two years as an Associate Research Scientist with George Sperling in the Human Information Processing (HIP) Lab here at NYU. He joined the Cognitive Sciences faculty at the University of California, Irvine in 1991 as an assistant professor, where taught and conducted research for four years before returning to NYU in 1995.


B.Sc. Experimental Psychology, University of Toronto, 1982

M.A. Experimental Psychology, University of Western Ontario, 1984

M. Phil. Experimental Psychology, Columbia University, 1989

Ph.D. Experimental Psychology, Columbia University, 1990

Post Doctoral Research, New York University, (HIPLab, George Sperling), 1990-92

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Brian McElree
Professor of Psychology

Department of Psychology
New York University
6 Washington Place, Room 860
New York, NY 10003
Phone: (212) 998-8336
Fax: (212) 995-4349

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