Skip to main content

Brown-Schmidt, Sarah, Department of Psychology and Human Development

Sarah Brown-Schmidt, Ph.D.
Professor of Psychology & Human Development

My research focuses on the mechanisms by which people produce and understand utterances during the most basic form of language use: interactive conversation. I am currently pursuing three questions in related lines of research:

(1) Common ground and perspective-taking: In particular, I am interested in understanding how knowledge about what our conversational partners do and don’t know guide language use. A central goal of my research is to understand how this knowledge is represented in memory, and how the way it is represented guides how it is used, including in conversations with more than two individuals.
(2) Memory and language: In this line of research, I study the memory processes that interact with and support language use. In collaboration with Melissa Duff, I am examining the contributions of the hippocampal-dependent declarative memory system to real-time language processing through the study of individuals with severe declarative memory impairment. In another line of work, I am examining how asymmetries between source and destination memory map onto differences in memory representations between speakers and listeners.
(3) Message formulation: How do thoughts become speech? I am most interested in understanding the first part of this process—the link between ideas or messages, and the very first stages of language production, particularly in unscripted, conversational speech.

In investigating these questions, I combine the visual world eye-tracking technique (Tanenhaus, et al. 1995) with task-based, unscripted conversation. I design the tasks that participants engage in to elicit specific linguistic constructions in experimental conditions of interest without explicitly controlling what the participants say. I call this the targeted language game technique (Brown-Schmidt, 2005). Unscripted conversation differs from the scripted speech typically studied in experimental settings and it affords investigation of processes which are central to language, but have previously been difficult to examine using standard techniques. Critically, my work contributes to theories of language processing by providing novel insights into linguistic processes, as well as providing a test-bed for examining how well standard theories account for language use in its most basic setting.

For more information, visit the lab website.