idanblank's picture
Idan Blank
Assistant Professor
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Primary Area:
Cognitive Psychology
Research and Teaching Interests:

I study how we understand language—a phenomenon that is universal across human cultures, yet unique to our species, and allows us to transmit thoughts from one mind to another. What are the component processes of comprehension? What kind of mental structures allow us to “know the meaning” of an utterance? Which distinctions in meaning do these structures make more/less salient? And what mental operations are used to manipulate them?

To understand how comprehension evolves in our minds, I study how it engages our brains: which aspects of comprehension get their own dedicated neural real estate? Which are inseparable, supported by a joint mechanism? And which rely on circuits that serve many domains beyond language? Using neuroimaging (mostly functional MRI), tools from network neuroscience, and a combination of hypothesis- and data-driven approaches, I characterize the functional regions engaged when adult native speakers understand language: their internal organization and relationship to one another (dissociable vs. tightly linked); the division of “mental labor” and the integration of information across them; and the ways they change following brain injuries.

I also use computational methods to evaluate meaning representations that are generated by algorithms trained on natural texts. I examine what knowledge—about words, their combinations, and the underlying concepts—is captured by these representations, and compare it against behavioral benchmarks. I test which features of the linguistic input are minimally required for machines to extract this knowledge. 


Idan A. Blank will join UCLA as an Assistant Professor of Psychology in July 2019. He received his PhD (2016) in Cognitive Science from MIT, working with Nancy Kanwisher and Ev Fedorenko, and continued working with Ev as a postdoctoral associate at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Prior to that, he studied mathematics, psychology, and theatre arts in the Lautman Interdisciplinary Program at Tel-Aviv University, where he received his MA (2011) working with Galit Yovel.

Representative Publications:

Mineroff, Z.*, Blank, I.A.*, Mahowald, K., & Fedorenko, E. (2018) A robust dissociation among the language, multiple demand, and default mode networks: evidence from inter-region correlations in effect size. Neuropsychologia, 119, 501-511. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2018.09.011

Blank, I.A., Kiran, S., & Fedorenko, E. (2017). Can neuroimaging help aphasia researchers? Addressing generalizability, variability, and interpretability. Cognitive Neuropsychology, 34(6), 377-393. DOI: 10.1080/02643294.2017.1402756

Blank, I.A. & Fedorenko, E. (2017) Domain-general brain regions do not track linguistic input as closely as language-selective regions. Journal of Neuroscience, 37(41), 9999–10011. DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.3642-16.2017

Blank, I., Balewski, Z., Mahowald, K. & Fedorenko, E. (2016). Syntactic processing is distributed across the language system. Neuroimage, 127, 307-323. DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2015.11.069

Blank, I., Kanwisher, N. & Fedorenko, E. (2014). A functional dissociation between language and multiple demand regions revealed in patterns of BOLD fluctuations. Journal of Neurophysiology, 112(5): 1105-1118. DOI: 10.1152/jn.00884.2013

Grand, G.*, Blank, I.A.*, Pereira, F., & Fedorenko, E. (submitted) Semantic projection: recovering human knowledge of multiple, distinct object features from word-embeddings. arXiv:1802.01241