The interpretative brain: Understanding and promoting pragmatic abilities across lifespan and in mental illness


Humans are geared with the ability to interpret each other’s’ behavior, from hand gesture to facial expression and language. Verbal communication is one domain where this engine becomes especially evident. In social interactions, we are capable of interpreting the partner’s intended meaning based on linguistic cues but also integrating beliefs, desires and other elements of the communicative context. This interpretative capacity forms the so-called pragmatic competence, allowing for complex acts such as metaphors and irony. Notably, breakdowns in pragmatic abilities might affect anyone at any age, especially in aging and in pathological conditions. In schizophrenia, for instance, 80% of patients exhibit a pragmatic deficit. Given the central role of social communication to human existence, pragmatic impairments significantly impact on wellbeing and increase costs to both the affected individual and society. Despite refinements in pragmatic theorizing and neuropragmatic research, we still know very little about the neurocognitive substrates of pragmatic abilities. Especially puzzling is the relation between pragmatics and Theory of Mind, due to overlapping brain correlates and comorbidity. This state of the art hampers the development of assessment and remediation tools.The project aims at (1) understanding the neurocognitive substrates of pragmatics in the human brain; (2) promoting communicative skills across lifespan and in mental illness. To achieve these goals, the project will adopt a cognitive-science multidisciplinary approach that benefits from the synergy of 4 Units with solid background in pragmatics, ToM, training and schizophrenia. Research will unfold in 3 Work Packages: WP1 will ground pragmatic mechanisms in neurophysiology by measuring EEG activity and brain networks; WP2 will test the direction of the relation between pragmatics and ToM through a training methodology in children and elderly people, thus providing a view over lifespan modifications; WP3 will target schizophrenia by assessing and training pragmatics and ToM, measuring effectiveness both at behavior and neural level. Across WPs, carefully designed materials will be employed focusing on the organization of discourse and the comprehension of non-literal language in ecologically valid contexts. Several innovative aspects characterize the project, from cutting edge methodologies (brain oscillation and functional connectivity analysis to measure brain response to treatment) to the training design, with the twofold advantage of unraveling causal relations between ToM and pragmatics, at the same time promoting the two. The outcome of the project will not only advance our understanding of the interpretative brain, in terms of neurocognitive substrates of pragmatics, but also respond to a societal challenge, promoting communication skills in lifespan and pathology,as a central aspect of human life. 

Persone coinvolte:

Valentina Bambini


Università degli Studi di Torino

Libera Università "Vita Salute San Raffaele" Milano

Università degli Studi di Pavia


Periodo di svolgimento: 20/09/2016 - 05/02/2020



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