What are you talking about? A neurocognitive model of processing reference


In everyday conversations, interlocutors commonly describe things in their immediate environment in speech while concomitantly shifting the focus of attention of their listener by using pointing gestures. When listening to someone who refers to an object using speech and gesture, the brain therefore has to combine incoming auditory (speech) and visual (speaker, gesture, object) information in order to fully understand the message the speaker is conveying. It is currently not understood how the brain quickly and efficiently processes and combines such different types of information. This is due to the fact that visually and communicatively rich situations, such as everyday referential communication, have traditionally been difficult to study using neuroscientific methods such as EEG and fMRI. Recent advances in virtual reality technology now make it possible to mimick rich, communicative situations in the lab, while maintaining the experimental control that is necessary when measuring brain activity. By combining state-of-the-art virtual reality with EEG and fMRI measurements, I will develop a neurocognitive model that describes the network of brain areas involved in understanding acts of reference, the time course of activation of such areas during online processing, and any neurocognitive differences between processing different types of referential act (simple versus metonymic). Obtaining a better understanding of the mechanisms involved in everyday referential communication means that we will better understand a pivotal element of human communicative behavior. The neurocognitive model will serve as a basis for future work investigating impairments in the comprehension of referential communication, for example as in autism spectrum disorder.


Project number


Main applicant

Dr. D.G.T. Peeters

Affiliated with

Radboud Universiteit Nijmegen, Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging

Team members

Dr. D.G.T. Peeters


01/02/2018 to 31/08/2020