Back in 2004 a good friend of mine, Ken Ramshøj Christensen, was working on his PhD dissertation “Interfaces: Negation – Syntax – Brain”. To quote the introduction from this dissertation
“The aim of the study is two-fold, which is reflected in the two parts of the dissertation. Part one is a linguistic study – a case study in theoretical and comparative linguistics. The argumentation for the linguistic analyses involves a wide range of languages, including the Scandinavian languages, English, Hebrew, Portuguese, Finnish, Polish, German, and Dutch. The goal is to provide an analysis based on universal principles that will account for (the variations in) the movement phenomena and the constraints they are subject to. I shall argue that these constraints include syntactic constraints on computation (structure-dependency) and economy, as well as constraints on information structure. At the heart of this approach is the notion of derivational phases and interfaces. Syntactic computation interfaces with other cognitive systems; in this way constraints on information structure may motivate syntactic movement, including NEG-shift.
Part two is a neurolinguistic study. Based on findings in linguistic impairment after focal brain damage in a wide variety of languages, it has been argued that syntactic processing is localized in the brain in a single area in the left hemisphere. I present the results of a neuroimaging study on operator movement (NEG-shift and wh-movement), and hypothesize that syntactic processing is implemented in a distributed cortical network involving both hemispheres. This hypothesis is backed up by other neuroimaging studies on movement in other languages. The hypothesis is formulated within the linguistic framework of the minimalist program and it is based on the syntactic analysis of NEG-shift. Again, interfaces are at the heart the approach I adopt, and I shall argue that the interfacing between syntax and other cognitive systems also has a neural reflex.”
For this study a novel and specialized type of presentation software was needed, which i wrote for him. The requirements for the software was this:
- The user must be presented with a series of texts, and an option to answer.
- It must be highly configurable how text is presented as well as other options for user interaction.
- The software must record the user response to the text, and do this with the accuracy of below 1 millisecond.
Here, the users are the test subjects lying inside the MRI scanner at Skejby Hospital.
The software was written in C++ and ran on a laptop on Windows.
In 2007 Ken Ramshøj Christensen received fundings for further research into the relationship between language, cognition and the brain. Yet again i wrote some specialized software for him, this time in C#. The functionality of this software is much the same as the previous C++-version, but with some key differences. Furthermore the software now has to interface directly with the computers controlling the MRI-scanner; he has access to a new and much improved scanner generating a magnetic field of 3 Tesla (roughly 60.000 times the field strength of the Earth”s magnetic field), and we now have the ability to interface with it.
Because the research is still ongoing i can not disclose any more information about neither the research nor the software itself. I can only refer you to Ken’s homepage at the Institute for Language, Literature and Culture at the University of Aarhus, and The Danish National Research Foundation’s Center of Functionally Integrative Neuroscience.
Personal notes on the project
From a computer scientists point of view the software is not much to look at. The only interesting part is the algorithms and constructs i have made in order to make the software highly accurate, even though it uses multiple threads.
What is noteworthy is, that the research conducted by Ken Ramshøj Christensen is both important and interesting – although it is rather esoteric from a programmers point of view. That epitomizes just what it takes to be a developer – not only are we the professionals in the field of computer science, but we also need to be highly proficient in the customers domain. Maybe a project looks simple on paper, but looks can be – and usually is – deceptive.