Today’s cognitive neuroscience largely follows the tradition of empiricism by looking for correspondences between ‘stimuli’ in the external world and their responses or ‘representations’ in the brain. This approach works well (sort of) in primary sensory areas but typically fails when cognitive or emotional mechanisms are to be investigated. The empiricist method is a bit like learning words in a foreign language, i.e., collecting correspondences between a known and a new language. The initial progress is fast. One can get by in a foreign country with just 100 words of vocabulary. However, when it comes to truly understanding a language, one needs to know the grammar, the syntactical rules that allow for the generation of virtually infinite combinations from finite numbers of lexical elements. Syntax allows for the segmentation of information into a temporal progression of discrete elements with ordered and hierarchical relationships (e.g. tempo, punctuation, etc), resulting in congruent interpretation of meaning. We endeavor to study the syntax, and not just the vocabulary, of the brain.
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