Hierarchical Structure in Sequence Processing: How to Measure It and Determine Its Neural Implementation

Top Cogn Sci. 2020 Jul;12(3):910-924. doi: 10.1111/tops.12442. Epub 2019 Jul 30.


In many domains of human cognition, hierarchically structured representations are thought to play a key role. In this paper, we start with some foundational definitions of key phenomena like "sequence" and "hierarchy," and then outline potential signatures of hierarchical structure that can be observed in behavioral and neuroimaging data. Appropriate behavioral methods include classic ones from psycholinguistics along with some from the more recent artificial grammar learning and sentence processing literature. We then turn to neuroimaging evidence for hierarchical structure with a focus on the functional MRI literature. We conclude that, although a broad consensus exists about a role for a neural circuit incorporating the inferior frontal gyrus, the superior temporal sulcus, and the arcuate fasciculus, considerable uncertainty remains about the precise computational function(s) of this circuitry. An explicit theoretical framework, combined with an empirical approach focusing on distinguishing between plausible alternative hypotheses, will be necessary for further progress.

Keywords: Hierarchical structure; Nested grouping; Neural signatures; Sequence processing.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Functional Neuroimaging / methods*
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Models, Theoretical*
  • Nerve Net / diagnostic imaging
  • Nerve Net / physiology*
  • Psycholinguistics / methods*