Event Abstract

Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing: A Foreword to XPRAG.it

  • 1 Istituto Universitario di Studi Superiori di Pavia (IUSS), Italy
  • 2 Università di Genova, Department of Educational Sciences - Psychology Unit, Italy

Pragmatics is the study of language in context, an area of linguistic research emerged from the traditions of philosophy of language and linguistics characterized primarily by a theoretical approach based on intuitions and on the observation of linguistic behaviour. In the last twenty years, however, purely theoretical investigation in pragmatics has given way to an ‘experimental turn’: the main goal of pragmatics today is to provide theories on the use of language that are not only theoretically valid but also psychologically plausible, i.e., supported by empirical data collected with the experimental methods. In particular, two main empirical approaches can be identified: neuropragmatics and experimental pragmatics. Neuropragmatics is the study of the brain activity involved in the pragmatic level of communication (Bambini 2010; Hagoort & Levinson 2014). The main goal of neuropragmatics concerns the cerebral localization and the neurochronometry of the pragmatic processes as revealed through methodologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging and electrophysiological recording. Neuropragmatics is also characterized by a clinical perspective (Cummings 2017). One of the main objectives of neuropragmatics indeed is to identify the possible connections between specific pathological conditions (e.g., schizophrenia and traumatic brain injury) and breakdowns in pragmatic behavior. In the field of neuropragmatics it is currently possible to draw a distinction between two research perspectives: one regarding language comprehension and another focused on language production (Stemmer 2008; Bambini & Bara 2012). Studies on language comprehension have been conducted mainly in relation to the pragmatic inferences involved in understanding explicit and implicit contents like, for example, conversational implicatures (Kasher et al. 1999), different kinds of speech acts (Enrici et al. 2011; Bosco et al. 2012), metaphors, metonymy, and irony (Bambini et al. 2011; Schumacher 2011; Spotorno et al. 2013; Weiland et al. 2014), or, at the level of explicit meaning, disambiguation of ambiguous pronouns (Leonard et al. 1997) or idioms processing (Papagno et al. 2003; Romero Lauro et al. 2008). Language production has been studied mainly at the discourse level. Experimental investigations have considered, for example, the ability of people with language-related cognitive deficits to organize turn-taking system (Beeke 2003), to maintain the topic of the ongoing conversation (Hird & Kirsner 2003; Marini et al. 2014). While neuropragmatics investigates brain aspects involved in particular pragmatic processes, experimental pragmatics is rather interested in explaining the mechanisms and the phases of the different pragmatic processes. More precisely, the main purpose of experimental pragmatics is to use the experimental methods of the cognitive psychology tradition for acquiring empirical data to test the psychological plausibility of the proposals developed in theoretical pragmatics (Noveck & Sperber 2004). Empirical data are therefore used in experimental pragmatics as means to accept or reject theoretical hypotheses on pragmatic phenomena. Research in experimental pragmatics is today characterized by a considerable heterogeneity of methods, techniques, and experimental procedures. Among these, common approaches include picture-matching tasks, selection tasks, acceptability judgment tasks, truth-value evaluation, rating scales. In addition to reaction times and response types, researchers often use the eye-tracking technique with a variety of tasks. Studies on children are also common in experimental pragmatics, as a way to inspect the construction of pragmatic processing developmentally. The research topics of experimental pragmatics coincide with the classic issues of theoretical pragmatics. The current debate in experimental pragmatics focuses mainly the comprehension of conversational generalized implicatures like scalar implicatures (Noveck 2001; Bott & Noveck 2004; De Neys & Schaeken 2007), the process of reference assignment (Keysar 2000), and the understanding of figurative language such as metaphoric and ironic statements (Giora & Fein 1999; Glucksberg 2003; Giora 2003). A quite new research line targets presupposition: as information communicated as taken for granted, presuppositions have for long been considered a level of content which speakers automatically compute and understand by default. Recently, however, some studies have used behavioural methods to investigate presupposition costs and processing times (Sauerland & Yatsushiro 2009; Schwarz 2014; Domaneschi et al. 2014a; 2014b; 2016). Of course, neuropragmatics and experimental pragmatics are largely connected and the distinction between the two often shades away. A relevant area where experimental pragmatics and neuropragmatics converge is the consideration of other cognitive components that interact with pragmatic processing. Both at the behavioural and neural level, scholars are interested in disentangling the relationship between pragmatics, Theory of Mind, and executive functions (Martin & McDonald 2003). Insights on this topic would carry important implication for theoretical modelling and could contribute solve old issues such as whether pragmatics is a sub-module of Theory of Mind. Research is of course a worldwide enterprise, which knows no boundaries and no frontiers. However, logistic factors make collaborations with geographical neighbours easier. Moreover, national academic regulations require research lines to be visible and solid. This is where XPRAG.it originates from. Italy has a long tradition in research on typically pragmatic topics, from figurative language to different kinds of inference. A new generation of scholars working on these topics is facing the scene. Yet, at least in the national conferences landscape, this research is scattered through events that rarely focus on pragmatics, but rather deal with psychology, linguistics, and neuropsychology in general. XPRAG.it aims at providing an Italian venue for discussing empirical research on pragmatics, with the aim of promoting exchange among scholars, creating new ideas, and strengthening the field. With this idea in mind, we contacted a number of Italian prominent scholars active in experimental pragmatics and neuropragmatics, and asked them to gather in Genova. They accepted with enthusiasm and this collection of abstracts is indicative of the richness and variety of research lines. Ira Noveck, one of the founding figures of experimental pragmatics, accepted to give the keynote lecture, and we are especially happy that his contribution will bring us to the core of pragmatics, i.e., the role of intentions, back to Grice where all started. Looking now to the future, we hope that XPRAG.it will continue to exist in some form, as a stable meeting for our community, and much beyond. Indeed, the potential significance of an Italian XPRAG venue will ultimately be measured at the worldwide level.


Bambini V., Gentili, C., Ricciardi, E., Bertinetto, P., & Pietrini, P. (2011). Decomposing metaphor processing at the cognitive and neural level through functional magnetic resonance imaging. Brain Research Bulletin, 86(3-4), 203-216.
Bambini, V. (2010). Neuropragmatics: A foreword. Italian Journal of Linguistics / Rivista di Linguistica, 22, 1-20.
Bambini, V., & Bara, B. (2012). Neuropragmatics. In Ostman, J-O., & Verschueren, J. (Eds.), Handbook of Pragmatics (pp. 1-22). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Bosco, F. M., Bono, A., & Bara, B. G. (2012). Recognition and repair of communicative failures: The interaction between Theory of Mind and cognitive complexity in schizophrenic patients. Journal of Communication Disorders, 45(3), 181–197.
Bott, L. & Noveck, I. A. (2004). Some utterances are underinformative: the onset and time course of scalar inferences. Journal of Memory and Language, 51, 437-457.
Cummings, L. (2017) (Ed.). Research in Clinical Pragmatics. Dordrecht: Springer International Publishing.
De Neys, W., & Schaeken, W. (2007). When People Are More Logical Under Cognitive Load: Dual Task Impact on Scalar Implicature. Experimental Psychology, 54, 128-133.
Domaneschi, F., Carrea, E., Penco, C., & Greco, A. (2014a). The cognitive load of presupposition triggers. Mandatory and optional repairs in presupposition failure. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 29 (1), 136-146.
Domaneschi, F., Carrea, E., Penco, C., & Greco, A. (2014b). Propositional attitudes towards presuppositions. An experimental approach. Pragmatics and Cognition, 22(3), 291–309.
Domaneschi, F., Carrea, E., Penco, C., & Greco, A. (2016). Selecting presuppositions in conditional clauses. Results from a psycholinguistic experiment. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 2026-2036.
Enrici, I., Adenzato, M., Cappa, S., Bara, B.G., & Tettamanti, M. (2011). Intention processing in communication: A common brain network for language and gestures. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 23, 2415-2431.
Giora, R., & Fein, O. (1999). Irony: Context and salience. Metaphor and Symbol, 14, 241-257.
Giora R. (2003), On Our Mind. Salience, Context, and Figurative Language, Oxford University Press, New York.
Glucksberg, S. (2003). The psycholinguistics of metaphor. Trends in Cognitive Science, 7, 92-96.
Hagoort, P., & Levinson, S. C. (2014). Neuropragmatics. In Gazzaniga, M. S. & Mangun, G. R. (Eds.), The cognitive neurosciences (5th ed., pp. 667-674). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
Keysar, B. et al. (2000). “Taking perspective in conversation: the role of mutual knowledge in comprehension”, Psychol. Sci., 11, 32-38.
Romero Lauro, L. J., Tettamanti, M., Cappa, S., & Papagno, C. (2008). Idiom comprehension: a prefrontal task? Cerebral Cortex, 18(1), 162-170.
Marini, A., Zettin, M., & Galetto, V. (2014). Cognitive correlates of narrative impairment in moderate traumatic brain injury. Neuropsychologia, 64C, 282–288.
Martin, I., Mc Donald, S. (2003). Weak coherence, no theory of mind, or executive dysfunction? Solving the puzzle of pragmatic language disorders. Brain and language, 85(3), 451-66.
Noveck, I. A. (2001). When children are more logical than adults: investigations of scalar implicature. Cognition, 78, 165-188.
Noveck, I., & Sperber, D. (2004). Experimental Pragmatics. Basingstoke: Palgrave.
Sauerland, U., & Yatsushiro, K. (Eds.) (2009), Semantics and Pragmatics: From Experiment to Theory. Basingstoke: Palgrave, Macmillan.
Schumacher, P. B. (2011). The hepatitis called: Electrophysiological evidence for Enriched composition. In Meibauer, J. & Steinbach, M. (Eds.), Experimental Pragmatics Semantics (pp. 199-219). Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
Schwarz, F. (2015). Experimental Perspectives on Presuppositions. Dordrecht: Springer International Publishing.
Spotorno, N., Koun, E., Prado, J., Van Der Henst, J.-B., & Noveck, I. A. (2012). Neural evidence that utterance-processing entails mentalizing: The case of irony. NeuroImage, 63(1), 25–39.
Stemmer, B. (2008). Neuropragmatics: Disorders and neural systems. In Stemmer, B. & Whitaker, H. A. (Eds.), Handbook of the Neuroscience of Language (pp. 367-379). New York: Elsevier.
Weiland H., Bambini, V., & Schumacher, P. (2014). Th role of literal meaning in figurative language comprehension: evidence from masked priming ERP. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 8, 583.

Keywords: Experimental pragmatics, Neuropragmatics, figurative language, presuppositions, scalar implicatures, Clinical pragmatics

Conference: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing , Genoa, Italy, 10 Jun - 11 Jun, 2017.

Presentation Type: Oral Presentation

Topic: Foreword

Citation: Bambini V and Domaneschi F (2019). Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing: A Foreword to XPRAG.it. Front. Psychol. Conference Abstract: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing . doi: 10.3389/conf.fpsyg.2017.71.00001

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Received: 29 May 2017; Published Online: 25 Jan 2019.

* Correspondence: Prof. Valentina Bambini, Istituto Universitario di Studi Superiori di Pavia (IUSS), Pavia, Italy, valentina.bambini@iusspavia.it