ESR3: Does prediction drive neural alignment in conversation?

PhD Fellow: Emilia Kerr

My name is Emilia Kerr, and I am a PhD candidate for the COBRA ESR 3, working at the Aix-Marseille University under the supervision of Dr. Kristof Strijkers and Dr. Benjamin Morillon, and co-supervision from Dr. Friedemann Pulvermüller at Freie Universität Berlin. Language is what excites me the most, and over the years, I have been studying and working with language from different perspectives. I started my journey when in 2009 and 2011 I received my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Linguistics from St Petersburg State University, Russia. At that time my interests mostly focused on morphological semantics, and my work was largely inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ideas on how the meaning of language is revealed in its use.

After graduation I taught English for about 8 years. I really loved teaching but the desire to investigate language deeper and find out how the human brain processes language with such striking ease sparked my interest in the field that merges linguistics and neuroscience. And this led me to do my second Master’s degree in Cognitive Neuroscience of Language at the Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language (BCBL) in San Sebastian, Spain.

Now, within the COBRA project, I have an incredible opportunity to fulfill my aspiration to add to the knowledge of language processing and participate in development of new research paradigms that investigate conversational alignment and prediction. Not only is it interesting to me as a personal advancement in the theoretical frameworks I work with, but also because one of the most apparent and important functions of language is interaction between individuals, and it is more than necessary to conduct research into how this interaction is achieved and what the cognitive and brain processes behind it are. When I was preparing to apply for this PhD position, I was delighted to find out that one of the seminal papers in the field of conversational alignment and brain-to-brain coupling, Hassan et al. 2012, starts by citing Wittgenstein and his theoretical stance that I mentioned earlier – indeed, if we apply his ideas to the current advancements in language sciences, we must acknowledge that it is time we put more effort into investigating language processing not only in individual speakers but in the way we primarily use language, i.e., in interactions between humans. One of the aims of the COBRA network is to do precisely that, and I am excited to be part of this endeavor.


Recent studies on neural alignment in language have shown that successful communication relies on the synchronization of the same brain regions in both speakers. However, more explicit links between neural alignment and specific linguistic functions remain to be established. ESR3’s project relies on the hypothesis that the degree of neural synchronization depends on the degree of predictive processing: the more predictability between speaker and listener (e.g. by modulating meaning predictability, syntactic familiarity, or speaker dialect), the more their brain responses will align and display similar oscillatory dynamics. This will be tested for specific linguistic functions in dual-EEG experiments with pairs of interlocutors engaged in conversations. The identification of component-specific brain markers of predictability and alignment will allow to establish which linguistic factors can enhance the predictability, and thus alignment, in human-machine interactions.

Expected results:

  • Establish whether neural alignment is dependent on inter-speaker predictability;
  • Obtain neurophysiological measurements of predictability in conversation;
  • Identify for different linguistic functions the time course of neural alignment and oscillatory dynamics in perception-production interactions;
  • Apply these neural markers of inter-speaker predictability and alignment as an evaluation tool for the assessment of the human-likeness of human-machine interactions.

Based in Aix-en-Provence, France

Full-time three-year contract, starting September 2020

PhD enrolment at: Aix-Marseille University

Main supervisor’s institution: Aix-Marseille University

Main supervisor: Dr Kristof Strijkers


  • Freie Universität Berlin: explore how predictive alignment interacts with different verbal acts and pragmatic contexts (5 months);
  • Furhat Robotics, Stockholm: apply neurophysiological insights of predictability and neural alignment to test and improve the effectiveness of human-machine interactions (5,5 months).

Co-supervisors’ institutions:

  • Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
  • Furhat Robotics, Stockholm, Sweden

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