Lab Director

Liina Pylkkänen, Ph.D.


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The essence of human language is its unbounded combinatory potential: generative systems of syntax and semantics allow for the composition of an infinite range of expressions from a limited set of elementary building blocks. My research aims to characterize the representational and processing properties of this combinatory system. What are its basic computational units and how do they structurally combine?

After completing a substantial body of theoretical work addressing the syntax-semantics interface for a particular subdomain of grammar (the verb phrase), I turned my research focus to characterizing the brain mechanisms responsible for the semantic combinatorics of language. The operations by which our brains build complex meanings from simpler pieces are intimately intertwined with computations building complex syntactic structures. Thus an important goal of my laboratory is to also understand the neural bases of syntactic structure building.

Finally, since complex syntactic and semantic representations are, in some sense, the end product of language comprehension, being able to study them requires an understanding of the lower-level processes leading up to them. Thus in addition to studies directly targeting sentence-level semantics, my research has also addressed word-level processes such as lexical access and morphological decomposition. To monitor brain activity, the work in my lab primarily employs magnetoencephalography (MEG), which offers the best combination of temporal and spatial resolution among currently available cognitive neuroscience methods.

Lab Manager


  • Moral Cognition
  • Empathy and Theory of Mind
  • Social Influences on Moral Principles

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  • Graduate Students

    Christian Brodbeck

  • Reference Resolution
  • Semantic Combinatorics
  • MEG Analysis and Methods

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  • Andrew Jamison

  • Neurolinguistics
  • Lexical and Combinatorial Semantics
  • Predictive Parsing

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  • Masha Westerlund

  • Neurolinguistics
  • Semantic Memory
  • Semantic Composition

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  • Adina Williams

  • Semantics and Syntax
  • Conceptual Processing
  • Semantic Composition

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  • LinMin Zhang

  • Neurolinguistics
  • Semantics and Pragmatics
  • Semantic Memory

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  • Student Affiliates

    Emily Hannah

    Language and Mind Undergraduate

    Project:"Brain bases of modification vs. disjunction and conjunction."

    Jayden Ziegler

    Linguistics PhD student

    Project: "Concept specificity and scalar adjectives in the left anterior temporal lobe."

    Vera Zu

    Linguistics PhD student

    Project: "Composing meaning morpheme by morpheme: An MEG investigation into across-word and within-word composition."

    Timothy Leffel

    Linguistics PhD student

    Project: "Restrictive vs. non-restrictive composition."

    Itamar Kastner

    Linguistics PhD student

    Project: "ASL production in MEG."

    Meera Al Kaabi

    Linguistics PhD student

    Project: "Is morphology syntax?"

    Past Members


    PhD 2014, Linguistics

    Postdoctoral Research Fellow

    Cincinnati Children's Hospital

    Neurology Division; Psychiatry Division


    Lab Manager, 2012-2014

    Research Assistant

    NYU Langone Medical Center

    Department of Neurology

    Miriam Lauter

    Lab Manager, 2013-2014

    Ellen O'Connor

    Visiting Student, 2012-2013

    PhD Candidate

    USC Linguistics


    PhD 2012, Psychology

    Postdoctoral Research Fellow


    Cognitive Neuroimaging Unit

    Sam Ritter

    Lab Programmer, 2012-2013

    PhD Candidate

    Princeton Neuroscience

    Rebecca Egbert

    Lab Manager, 2010-2012

    Francesca Delogu

    Postdoctoral Fellow, 2010-2011

    Postdoctoral Fellow

    Saarland University


    PhD 2010, Linguistics

    Assistant Professor

    University of Michigan Linguistics


    PhD 2010, Linguistics

    Postdoctoral Fellow

    New York University Psychology


    PhD 2010, Psychology

    Chancellor's Fellow

    University of Edinburgh

    Christine Boylan

    Lab Manager, 2008-2010

    PhD Candidate

    UPenn Psychology

    Andrew Smart

    Lab Manager, 2006-2008

    Research Scientist



    PhD 2007, Linguistics


    University of York

    Department of Language and Linguistic Science

    Kana Okano

    MA 2007, Psychology

    Postdoctoral Fellow



    Summer Research Assistant

    Lab Manager

    Boston College

    Jasmine Francis

    NYU Medical School, MD/PhD Program

    Department of Physiology and Neuroscience


    Lab Manager, 2004-2006

    Assistant Professor

    Pomona College Linguistics and Cognitive Science