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Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin - Lebenswissen­schaftliche Fakultät - Institut für Psychologie

Dr. Milena Rabovsky

Dr. Milena Rabovsky
assoziierte Wiss.
milena.rabovsky (at) hu-berlin.de

Research interests

Language ultimately aims to convey meaning. Yet, the processing of meaning remains elusive and much less understood as compared to other aspects of language such as the processing of syntax, orthography, or phonology. I view language and meaning through the lens of psychology and neuroscience, implying a focus not on the linguistic concepts one can apply to language systems in general, but to the concepts and mechanisms relevant to language and meaning processing in the human neurocognitive system. The goal of my research is to elucidate the processing of meaning in language, relying on the following guiding principles: First, to understand human language comprehension, we need to take the evidence provided by neuroscientific data – such as event-related brain potentials (ERPs) providing direct online indicators of electrical brain activity during comprehension – seriously, even at the cost of trading longheld beliefs about how language comprehension should work in principle. Second, it is crucial to precisely understand what these brain signals mean in terms of underlying processes. A principled way to understand a process is to rebuild it and therefore an important complementary approach I use, besides empirical EEG experiments (Rabovsky et al., 2008, 2012a, 2012b, 2012c, in rev.), is the simulation of language-related brain signals with computationally explicit and theoretically precise implemented neural network models.

Specifically, the most widely used ERP component in research on language and meaning is the N400 component. Since the first report of larger N400 amplitudes in sentences with semantic incongruities such as “I take my coffee with cream and dog.”, N400 amplitudes have been found to be modulated by numerous lexical and semantic variables. However, despite more than 30 years of research and over 1000 empirical studies, the functional basis of N400 amplitudes remains unclear and actively debated (Kutas & Federmeier, 2011). To better understand the functional basis of N400 amplitudes, we simulated a broad range of empirically observed N400 effects with implemented neural network models. Results suggest that N400 amplitudes reflect the stimulus-induced change in an implicit and probabilistic representation of meaning, and that this change at the same time corresponds to the implicit prediction error contained in the previous representation (Rabovsky, Hansen, & McClelland, 2016; Rabovsky & McRae, 2014). It is often assumed that prediction errors drive learning so that our simulations suggest that larger N400 amplitudes should trigger enhanced adaptation. This model-derived prediction is currently tested in empirical EEG experiments.



07/ 2013     
Dr. rer. nat. (Ph.D.), Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany (summa cum laude)    

10/ 2008    
Diploma (M.S.) in Psychology, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Germany

Academic positions

since 08/ 2016    
Postdoctoral researcher at the Neurocomputation and Neuroimaging Unit, Freie Universität
Berlin, Germany (Prof. Felix Blankenburg); Marie Curie Fellowship (return phase) and Einstein Prize Postdoctoral Stipend  

08/ 2015 – 07/ 2016    
Postdoctoral researcher at the Parallel Distributed Processing Lab at Stanford University,
CA, USA (Prof. Jay McClelland); Marie Curie Fellowship (outgoing phase)

04/ 2012 – 07/ 2015    
Research staff position at the Neurocognitive Psychology lab, Humboldt-Universität zu
Berlin, Germany (Prof. Rasha Abdel Rahman)

10/ 2011 – 03/ 2012    
Ph.D. scholarship from the German National Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) for
research stay at the University of Western Ontario, Canada (Prof. Ken McRae)

10/ 2008 – 09/ 2011    
Ph.D. scholarship from the Berlin School of Mind and Brain, German Excellence Initiative
(Prof. Rasha Abdel Rahman & Prof. Werner Sommer)


‘Best Paper Award’ for young investigators from the German Society for Cognitive Sciences

Heinz-Heckhausen Jungwissenschaftlerpreis (young investigator award) from the German
Society for Psychology (DGPs)

Rumelhart Memorial Travel Award

Student poster prize at the Architectures and Mechanisms for Language Processing
(AMLaP) Conference

‘Best Paper Award’ for young investigators from the German Society for Cognitive Sciences


Link to publications