Faculty profile

Morton Ann Gernsbacher

Morton Ann Gernsbacher

Dept. of Psychology
597 Psychology
(608) 262-6989


Research Keywords

psychology, neuroscience, cognitive neuroscience, language processing, neurodiversity


  • Department of Psychology, Vilas Research Professor and Sir Frederic C. Bartlett Professor of Psychology
  • Waisman Center, researcher

Current Projects

  • Director, Language Comprehension Lab and Autism Research

Research Collaborators

Representative Classes

  • Psych 411: Exploring Autism

Research Statement

I have two active lines of research. One line investigates the general, cognitive processes and mechanisms that underlie language comprehension. According to my Structure Building Framework, the goal of comprehension is to build a coherent, mental representation or "structure." To do this, comprehenders must first lay a foundation. Next, they develop the structure by mapping on information when that incoming information is coherent or related to previous information. However, if the incoming information is less coherent or related, comprehenders shift to initiate a new substructure. These structure building processes are accomplished by two mechanisms: enhancement, which boosts the activation of some representations, and suppression, which dampens the activation of other representations. My research has also explored individual differences in structure building ability to examine which cognitive processes and mechanisms underlie differences in adult comprehension skill. Additionally, I have used the Structure Building Framework to investigate one form of language production: written composition. My current work sharpens the Structure Building Framework by providing empirical tests of its boundaries and attempting to falsify the hypotheses it generates. I am currently using the brain imaging technique of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) for this line of research.

In a second line of research, I am looking to identify the patterns of language development among children with autism. Traditionally autism researchers have tended to think very categorically about the language skills and language development of children with autism. Children with autism were simplistically identified as those who "had language" and those who "did not have language." (A corollary categorization was of children with autism who were delayed in their language acquisition and children with autism who were not delayed in their language acquisition.) For those children with autism who "had language," the party line used to be that the only challenges they faced were pragmatic difficulties (e.g., conventional turn-taking) or semantic difficulties (e.g., understanding of dual meanings). However, several lines of inquiry demonstrate a range of challenges of language development among children with autism, in addition to pragmatic and semantic challenges. Syntactic challenges, articulation challenges, and oral motor planning challenges have been identified, thus broadening considerably the traditional conceptions. At the same time as traditional conceptions are being empirically broadened, research is convincingly demonstrating the overlap between features of autism spectrum disorders and features of other developmental language disorders. I have developed a sample of nearly 200 children in Dane County, Wisconsin, with an autism diagnosis and am studying these children's language development both cross-sectionally and longitudinally. For this line of my research, I employ behavioral methodologies and genetic linkage analysis (both in my data set and in nationally available data sets).

Selected Publications

  • Gernsbacher, M.A. (1997). Two decades of structure building. Discourse Processes, 23, 265-304.
  • Gernsbacher, M.A., Dawson, M., & Goldsmith, H.H. (2005). Three reasons not to believe in an autism epidemic. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 14, 55-58.
  • Gernsbacher, M.A., Dissanayake, C., Goldsmith, H.H., Mundy, P.G., Rogers, S.J., & Sigma, M. (2005). Autism and mother-child attachment. Science, 307, 1201-1203.
  • Gernsbacher, M.A., & Kaschak, M.P. (2002). Neuroimaging studies of language comprehension and production. Annual Review of Psychology, 54, 91-114.
  • Robertson, D.A., Gernsbacher, M.A., Guidotti, S.J., Robertson, R.R., Irwin, W., Mock, B.J., Compana, M.E. (2000). Functional neuroanatomy of the cognitive process of mapping during discourse comprehension. Psychological Science, 11, 255-260.