25, No. 13, Jan. 19, 2006
researchers study communication part of language
Steve McGaughey;, Beckman Institute Writer
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
Federmeier, right, a professor of psychology and
a researcher at the Beckman Institute, uses techniques
such as the electrophysiological cap worn by graduate
student Sara Lazzlo to study how people comprehend
language. The cap measures event-related brain potentials
used to gauge how the brain reacts to certain stimuli.
get their inspiration from a mentor, or colleague, or perhaps even a
lecture that strikes a chord. Psychology researcher Kara Federmeier
got hers from her younger brother when she was still in high school.
“I had a brother who died of a brain tumor,” Federmeier
said. “I saw in him going through the various struggles, the many
surgeries, that it’s hard to lose motor control, it’s hard
to lose a lot of things. But the communication part of language is maybe
one of the more devastating things to have to struggle with. So I went
into graduate school wanting to study language, in particular to study
the meaning aspect of language, the communication aspect of language.”
Federmeier kept her focus through her undergraduate years at the UI
and while earning a doctorate at the University of California at San
Diego. Now, that search for how we communicate meaning frames Federmeier’s
work as a researcher at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and
Technology and professor of psychology at the UI.
Federmeier studies how people comprehend language, centering on the
process of turning stimuli like another person’s words into meaning
that is based on memory.
“What we mean by meaning is, basically, how you go from sensory
input to memory,” Federmeier said.
To accomplish her research goals, Federmeier uses traditional psychological
measures and newer techniques like eye-tracking devices and an electrophysiological
cap developed at her laboratory. The cap measures event-related brain
potentials (ERPs) used to gauge how the brain reacts to certain stimuli.
“There is a particular ERP response, we call it a component, a
feature in the waveform, that is really nicely correlated with meaning,”
Federmeier said. “The size of this component (known as the N400)
goes up and down as a function of how easy it is to appreciate the meaning
of what you’re looking at, for words, but also for other specific
things such as pictures and sounds.”
Federmeier’s investigation of meaning has led her to concentrate
on the hemispheres of our brains.
“A lot of people who study language focus on the grammatical aspect
of language and how words are put together, but we really focus on the
meaning aspect of language,” Federmeier said. “We think
it ties it all together. And we do think that what we find out about
how the two hemispheres comprehend might translate into other aspects
of how they process information in general.”
Federmeier said her research has shown that the left hemisphere, which
is known to control speech output, and the right hemisphere, which plays
a more passive role, work in tandem more than what many people realize.
And the production and comprehension of language plays a big role in
how our brains operate.
“So we think that there is a constant sort of interplay between
language comprehension and production in the left hemisphere, and that
this affects processing at all levels,” she said.
Federmeier also said that the brain’s hemispheres work in ways
that are more nuanced than what is typically portrayed in the popular
“The thing that really fascinates me, and my students, about hemisphere
differences is that the answer we keep getting is the brain doesn’t
do anything in just one way,” she said. “When you hear about
the hemispheres in magazines or read about them in newspapers it’s
always one does this and one does something very different. We think
that they both do a little bit of everything, but that they shift exactly
how they’re doing it, which is really quite important from an
information processing point of view.”
While at Illinois as an undergraduate, Federmeier walked the hallways
shortly after the Beckman Institute first opened in 1989. She never
expected to return one day as a Beckman faculty member.
“I didn’t think so seriously, but I always thought it would
be great if I could come back,” said the Danville native. “I
liked the area and it seemed like a great place to raise kids, and this
is a great intellectual environment.”
And while she has pursued other research interests over the years, Federmeier
has maintained her focus on how people communicate meaning to one another.
“There were lots of little jogs along the way but I always wanted
to work at that interface,” she said.