Behavioral and Brain Sciences



Verbal working memory and sentence comprehension


David Caplan a1 and Gloria S. Waters a2
a1 Neuropsychology Laboratory, Department of Neurology, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA 02114 caplan@helix.mgh.harvard.edu
a2 Department of Communication Disorders, Boston University, Boston, MA 02215 gwaters@bu.edu

Abstract

This target article discusses the verbal working memory system used in sentence comprehension. We review the concept of working memory as a short-duration system in which small amounts of information are simultaneously stored and manipulated in the service of accomplishing a task. We summarize the argument that syntactic processing in sentence comprehension requires such a storage and computational system. We then ask whether the working memory system used in syntactic processing is the same as that used in verbally mediated tasks that involve conscious controlled processing. Evidence is brought to bear from various sources: the relationship between individual differences in working memory and individual differences in the efficiency of syntactic processing; the effect of concurrent verbal memory load on syntactic processing; and syntactic processing in patients with poor short-term memory, patients with poor working memory, and patients with aphasia. Experimental results from these normal subjects and patients with various brain lesions converge on the conclusion that there is a specialization in the verbal working memory system for assigning the syntactic structure of a sentence and using that structure in determining sentence meaning that is separate from the working memory system underlying the use of sentence meaning to accomplish other functions. We present a theory of the divisions of the verbal working memory system and suggestions regarding its neural basis.


Key Words: memory; sentence comprehension; verbal working memory; working memory.