Department of Experimental Psychology
Henri Dunantlaan 2
B-9000 Ghent, Belgium
e-mail: Timothy DOT Desmet AT Ugent DOT be
Post-Doctoral Fellow of the
Research Foundation - Flanders, Ghent University, Belgium
1999 - 2003 Research Assistant
of the Research Foundation - Flanders / PhD.-student, Ghent University,
1994 - 1999 Undergraduate
Student, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium
Visiting Post-Doc, Department of Brain
and Cognitive Sciences, MIT, Cambridge, MA (10 months)
Visiting Scientist, Department of Psychology,
Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI (4 months)
Visiting Scientist, Department of Psychology, Michigan State University,
East Lansing, MI (4 months)
2000 - 2001 Visiting Scholar,
Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT, Cambridge, MA (10
My research deals with the cognitive processes involved in language
comprehension and production. I am mainly investigating questions
related to syntactic ambiguity resolution, the correspondence between
sentence comprehension and sentence production, the importance of
previous experience with syntactic structures by looking at syntactic
frequencies and syntactic priming, pronoun resolution, and the role
of working memory in language processes. I study these topics mainly
through the eye-tracking methodology, self-paced reading experiments,
sentence production tasks and natural text corpus analyses.
Some Key Topics:
- Sentence Comprehension
- Sentence processing is an automatic, fast, and seemingly
effortless cognitive process. Therefore it is very hard to study
this process directly. One way to circumvent this difficulty
is by looking at how people process syntactic ambiguities.
Syntactic ambiguities are sentences that have - at one point or
another in the sentence - more than one possible syntactic structure
and therefore more than one meaning. For instance, in the sentence
"Someone shot the servant of the actress who was on the balcony",
the relative clause "who was on the balcony" can be structurally
related to the first noun phrase "the servant" or to the second
noun phrase "the actress". Therefore, it is unclear whether the
servant or the actress was on the balcony. By studying how people
resolve syntactic ambiguities like this (off-line processing)
and by studying participant's reading times while reading ambiguous
sentences (online processing) this line of research hopes to reveal
some crucial aspects of sentence processing.
- Another way to circumvent the observation that sentence
comprehension is a very automatic process is by investigating how
people process syntactic complexities. One example of
syntactictically complex sentence structures are center-embeddings.
In center-embedded sentences one clause interrupts another clause.
For instance, in the sentence "The reporter that the senator attacked
fired the editor" the relative clause "that the senator attacked"
interrupts the main clause "The reporter fired the editor".
- For research on syntactic ambiguities, see Desmet, De Baecke,
& Brysbaert (2002, M&C); Desmet & Gibson (2003, JML);
Desmet, De Baecke, Drieghe, Brysbaert, & Vonk (in press, LCP)
- For research on syntactic complexities, see Gibson, Desmet,
Watson, Grodner, & Ko (in press, CL)
- What is the Role of Experience in Sentence
- The discussion of the role of experience in sentence processing
- and cognitive processes in general - is very old and is reminiscent
of the nature-nurture discussion. In our line of research we try
to study the influence of previous experience with syntactic structures
on sentence comprehension in two major ways.
- First, we compare the frequencies of specific structures
in large corpora of naturally occurring texts with the comprehension
processes related to these structures. According to experience-based
accounts of sentence processing, frequently occurring syntactic
structure should be easier to process than syntactic structures
that are very rare. This way of investigating this topic looks
at long-lasting effects of experience on language processing.
- The second way is to look at syntactic priming. Syntactic
priming is the tendency to re-use a syntactic structure when you
have used it just before. For instance, when people just heard
a passive sentence, they will be more eager to use a passive sentence
to describe a picture, than when they just heard an active sentence.
Compared to looking at frequencies in large text corpora, priming
studies look at the immediate and short-lasting effects of experience
on language processing.
- See Desmet & Gibson (2003, JML); Desmet, Brysbaert, &
De Baecke (2002, QJEP); Desmet, De Baecke, Drieghe, Brysbaert,
& Vonk (in press, LCP)
- Pronoun Resolution
- Pronoun resolution
refers to the process of establishing the correct antecedent for
a pronoun and is often the most explicit link between sentences.
For instance, in a story like “John was happy. He laughed.” the
antecedent of the pronoun “he” is “John”. Of course, a more interesting
case is when the pronoun can refer to more than one antecedent.
For instance, we have no apparent difficulty in understanding
the sentence “John sold Dirk his car because he hated it”, even
though we have to interpret three pronouns (“his”, “he”, and “it”)
in a context with three possible antecedents (“John”, “Dirk”,
and “car”). It is clear that understanding how pronoun resolution
works is crucial to our understanding of language processing.
In this research
we are investigating how the characteristics of the pronoun itself,
the characteristics of the potential antecedents, and the
structural overlap between both influence the way in which pronouns
- See Wolf, Gibson, & Desmet (2004, LCP)
- The Role of Working Memory in Language
- Numerous accounts of sentence processing and syntactic ambiguity
resolution assume that working memory constraints play a crucial
role in how sentences are understood and produced. In this line
of research we are further investigating the details of how working
memory is involved in sentence comprehension and production.
Desmet, T., De Baecke, C., Drieghe, D., Brysbaert,
M., & Vonk, W. (in press). Relative clause attachment in Dutch:
On-line comprehension corresponds to corpus frequencies when lexical
variables are taken into account. Language and Cognitive Processes.
Gibson, E., Desmet, T., Watson, D., Grodner,
D., & Ko, K. (in press). Reading relative clauses in English. Cognitive
Drieghe, D., Brysbaert, M., & Desmet, T.
(2005). Parafoveal-on-foveal effects on eye movements in text reading:
Does an extra space make a difference? Vision Research, 45, 1693-1706.
Wolf, F., Gibson, E., & Desmet, T. (2004).
Discourse coherence and pronoun resolution. Language and Cognitive
Processes, 19, 665-675.
Duyck, W., Desmet, T., Verbeke, L., &
Brysbaert, M. (2004). WordGen: A tool for word selection and non-word
generation in Dutch, German, English, and French. Behavior Research
Methods, Instruments, & Computers, 36(3), 488-499.
Drieghe, D., Brysbaert, M., Desmet, T., &
De Baecke, C. (2004). Word skipping in reading: On the interplay of
linguistic and visual factors. European Journal of Cognitive Psychology,
Desmet, T., & Gibson, E. (2003).
Disambiguation preferences and corpus frequencies in noun phrase
conjunction. Journal of Memory and Language, 49(3), 353-374.
Desmet, T., De Baecke, C., &
Brysbaert, M. (2002). The influence of referential discourse context
on modifier attachment in Dutch. Memory & Cognition, 30(1),
Desmet, T., Brysbaert, M., &
De Baecke, C. (2002). The correspondence between sentence production
and corpus frequencies in modifier attachment. The Quarterly Journal
of Experimental Psychology, 55A (3), 879-896.
Kemps, E., De Rammelaere, S., & Desmet,
T. (2000). The development of working memory: Exploring the
complementarity of two models. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology,