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Barking up the right tree: Univariate and multivariate fMRI analyses of homonym comprehension

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Original languageEnglish
Article number117050
JournalNeuroImage
Volume219
Early online date12 Jun 2020
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2020

Abstract

Homonyms are a critical test case for investigating how the brain resolves ambiguity in language and, more generally, how context influences semantic processing. Previous neuroimaging studies have associated processing of homonyms with greater engagement of regions involved in executive control of semantic processing. However, the precise role of these areas and the involvement of semantic representational regions in homonym comprehension remain elusive. We addressed this by combining univariate and multivariate fMRI analyses of homonym processing. We tested whether multi-voxel activation patterns could discriminate between presentations of the same homonym in different contexts (e.g., bark following tree vs. bark following dog). The ventral anterior temporal lobe, implicated in semantic representation but not previously in homonym comprehension, showed this meaning-specific coding, despite not showing increased mean activation for homonyms. Within inferior frontal gyrus (IFG), a key site for semantic control, there was a dissociation between pars orbitalis, which also showed meaning-specific coding, and pars triangularis, which discriminated more generally between semantically related and unrelated word pairs. IFG effects were goal-dependent, only occurring when the task required semantic decisions, in line with a top-down control function. Finally, posterior middle temporal cortex showed a hybrid pattern of responses, supporting the idea that it acts as an interface between semantic representations and the control system. The study provides new evidence for context-dependent coding in the semantic system and clarifies the role of control regions in processing ambiguity. It also highlights the importance of combining univariate and multivariate neuroimaging data to fully elucidate the role of a brain region in semantic cognition.

    Research areas

  • ambiguity, context, comprehension, semantic control, hub-and-spoke

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