What can Neuroscience tell us about Reference?

In Barbara Abbott & Jeanette Gundel (eds.), Handbook on Reference. Oxford University Press. pp. 365-383 (2019)
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In traditional formal semantics the notions of reference, truth and satisfaction are basic and that of representation is derivative and dispensable. If a level of representation is included in the formal presentation of the theory, it is included as a heuristic. Semantics in the traditional sense has no bearing on any form of mental processing. When reference is understood within this framework, cognitive neuroscience cannot possibly provide any insights into the nature of reference. Traditional semantics, however, has numerous shortcomings that render it inadequate as an account of natural language. Dynamic semantic theories, such as discourse representation theory (DRT), treat ever­growing, revisable mental representations as the basic semantic entities. Within this framework, there are two central notions of reference. New information may refer back to previously introduced discourse referents and discourse referents may refer to worldly entities. Because DRT treats mental representations as indispensable elements of the theory, evidence from neuroscience, particularly the recording of electroencephalograms (EEG) and its derivative event-­related potentials (ERPs), can reasonably be thought to shed light on meaning and reference within this framework. In this chapter I first review the advantages of DRT in accommodating linguistic data and then review data from neuroscience that seem to support it. Finally, I consider some methodological concerns that have been raised about the neuroscientific approach to semantics.

Author's Profile

Berit Brogaard
University of Miami


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