Analysis by Synthesis: A (Re-)Emerging Program of Research for Language and Vision


  • Thomas G. Bever
  • David Poeppel


This contribution reviews (some of) the history of analysis by synthesis, an approach to perception and comprehension articulated in the 1950s. Whereas much research has focused on bottom-up, feed-forward, inductive mechanisms, analysis by synthesis as a heuristic model emphasizes a balance of bottom-up and knowledge-driven, top-down, predictive steps in speech perception and language comprehension. This idea aligns well with contemporary Bayesian approaches to perception (in language and other domains), which are illustrated with examples from different aspects of perception and comprehension. Results from psycholinguistics, the cognitive neuroscience of language, and visual object recognition suggest that analysis by synthesis can provide a productive way of structuring biolinguistic research. Current evidence suggests that such a model is theoretically well motivated, biologically sensible, and becomes computationally tractable borrowing from Bayesian formalizations.