The functional neuroanatomy of comprehension and memory: the importance of prior knowledge

A. E. Maguire, C D Frith, R G Morris

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

Stories are a common way in which humans convey and acquire new information. Their effectiveness and memorability require that they be understood which, in turn, depends on two factors-whether the story makes sense and the prior knowledge that the listener brings to bear. Comprehension requires the linking of related pieces of information, some provided within the story and some by the listener, in a process establishing coherence. In this study, we examined brain activations associated with story processing. During PET scanning, passages of prose were read twice to subjects during successive scans with the requirement to remember them. These were either standard stories that were readily comprehensible, or unusual stories for which the global theme was very difficult to extract without prior knowledge of the mental framework. This was manipulated by the provision of relevant, irrelevant or no visual cues shortly before the story. Ratings of comprehension provided by the subjects just after each scan confirmed that standard stories were more comprehensible than the unusual stories, as were unusual stories with a mental framework compared with those without. PET results showed activation of anterior and ventral parts of the medial parietal/posterior cingulate cortex in association with hearing unusual stories when subjects were given prior knowledge of what it might be about. Medial ventral orbitofrontal cortex and left temporal pole activations were found to be associated with more general aspects of comprehension. Medial parietal cortex (precuneus) and left prefrontal cortex were associated with story repetition. We suggest that while the temporal pole is involved in the linking of propositions to build a narrative, the anterior medial parietal/posterior cingulate cortex is concerned with linking this information with prior knowledge. All of this occurs in the context of a general memory processing/retrieval system that includes the posterior parietal (precuneus) and prefrontal cortex. Knowledge of how distinct brain regions contribute differentially to aspects of comprehension and memory has implications for understanding how these processes break down in conditions of brain injury or disease.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1839-50
Number of pages12
Volume122 ( Pt 10)
Publication statusPublished - Oct 1999

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • Acoustic Stimulation
  • Adult
  • Brain
  • Brain Mapping
  • Cerebrovascular Circulation
  • Cognition
  • Cues
  • Humans
  • Knowledge
  • Language Arts
  • Male
  • Memory
  • Mental Recall
  • Time Factors
  • Tomography, Emission-Computed
  • Clinical Trial
  • Journal Article
  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


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