Timothy Desmet
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Ghent University 
Department of Experimental Psychology

Language at Ghent

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CV        Research Interest        Publications

Contact Information:

Department of Experimental Psychology
Ghent University
Henri Dunantlaan 2
B-9000    Ghent, Belgium
Web Page
e-mail:  Timothy DOT Desmet AT Ugent DOT be


2003 -                 Post-Doctoral Fellow of the Research Foundation - Flanders, Ghent University, Belgium
1999 - 2003        Research Assistant of the Research Foundation - Flanders / PhD.-student, Ghent University, Belgium
1994 - 1999        Undergraduate Student, Ghent University, Ghent, Belgium

2005                   Visiting Post-Doc, Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, MIT, Cambridge, MA (10 months)
2004                   Visiting Scientist, Department of Psychology, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI (4 months)
2003                   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 months)

Research Interests

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 Processing?
    • 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 are interpreted.
    • See Wolf, Gibson, & Desmet (2004, LCP)
  • The Role of Working Memory in Language Processing
    • 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.

Selected Publications

In peer-reviewed journals


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 Linguistics.

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, 16, 79-103.

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), 150-157.

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, 77, 89-109.