Professor Iris Berent has found a unique niche in the world of psychological research. The questions she strives to answer in her work – namely, whether there are innate principles common to human language – have their roots in psychology, but also have linguistic applications.
“Every discipline has its own interests and obsessions,” she said, adding that “you learn how to speak” the language of each field.
Though her professorship is in Northeastern’s psychology department, Berent collaborates with linguists, psychologists and neuroscientists. Students in a variety of disciplines work in the Phonology and Reading Lab, where Berent is the principal investigator.
Phonology refers to the study of the sound patterns of language. In the Phonology and Reading Lab, researchers attempt to understand whether the principles that govern these patterns are innate, rather than a result of our physical abilities. One example is the human tendency to use words like “blog” rather than “lbog.” The latter is more difficult to pronounce, but Berent says this physical limitation may not be the main reason that words like “lbog” are not part of everyday speech.
Instead, those tendencies may be governed by abstract rules that hold true in the brains of all humans. Berent and her colleagues determine this by disrupting the articulatory motor systems of their experimental subjects. In some experiments, people are asked to bite on tongue depressors; in other experiments, they disrupt the brain system that controls the lip and tongue. What they find is that the linguistic preferences of subjects remain the same, regardless of whether the articulatory system is being affected.
Additional research from the lab has identified shared traits between linguistic preferences in spoken language and sign language, further evidence that these preferences aren’t solely based on our spoken motor abilities.
“It’s not to say that language is not well-adapted to our motor system, but that’s not the immediate cause of how people use language,” Berent said.
She said this concept of abstract linguistic rules can be difficult for people to wrap their heads around.
“People are more likely to accept innate structures in the body than in the mind,” Berent said.
The complex nature of Berent’s research, combined with the fact that it straddles psychology and linguistics, means that it can be challenging to communicate her work across scientific disciplines. For that reason, she was delighted to be named a fellow of the Association of Psychological Science (APS) – a leading international organization in psychological research – in 2017. Fellows are recognized for “sustained outstanding contributions to the science of psychology in the areas of research, teaching, service, and/or application.”
“Interdisciplinary research is hard to do and even harder to communicate,” Berent said. “This recognition is important in the sense that I feel happy the research was communicated in a way that they [APS] recognized it as part of their discipline.”
Berent’s passion to answer questions about the fundamentals of human language comes from a combined interest in linguistics and psychology, but also from a deeper interest in the philosophical origins of human knowledge.
“Psychology really came out from philosophy,” Berent said. “Good research in psychology helps us understand the origins of human nature.”