The words that little by little revealed everything: Neural response to lexical-semantic content during narrative comprehension

Melissa Thye*, Paul Hoffman, Dan Mirman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

The ease with which narratives are understood belies the complexity of the information being conveyed and the cognitive processes that support comprehension. The meanings of the words must be rapidly accessed and integrated with the reader's mental representation of the overarching, unfolding scenario. A broad, bilateral brain network is engaged by this process, but it is not clear how words that vary on specific semantic dimensions, such as ambiguity, emotion, or socialness, engage the semantic, semantic control, or social cognition systems. In the present study, data from 48 participants who listened to The Little Prince audiobook during MRI scanning were selected from the Le Petit Prince dataset. The lexical and semantic content within the narrative was quantified from the transcript words with factor scores capturing Word Length, Semantic Flexibility, Emotional Strength, and Social Impact. These scores, along with word quantity variables, were used to investigate where these predictors co-vary with activation across the brain. In contrast to studies of isolated word processing, large networks were found to co-vary with the lexical and semantic content within the narrative. An increase in semantic content engaged ventrolateral ATL, consistent with its role as a semantic hub. Decreased semantic content engaged temporal pole and inferior parietal lobule, which may reflect semantic integration. The semantic control network was engaged by words with low Semantic Flexibility, perhaps due to the demand required to process infrequent, less semantically diverse language. Activation in dorsolateral ATL co-varied with an increase in Social Impact, which is consistent with the claim that social knowledge is housed within the neural architecture of the semantic system. These results suggest that current models of language processing may present an impoverished estimate of the neural systems that coordinate to support narrative comprehension, and, by extension, real-world language processing.
Original languageEnglish
Article number120204
Early online date29 May 2023
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2023

Keywords / Materials (for Non-textual outputs)

  • semantic cognition
  • narrative comprehension
  • naturalistic neuroimaging
  • social cognition


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