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On sense and reference: Examining the functional neuroanatomy of referential processing

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Nieuwland, M. S., Petersson, K. M., & Van Berkum, J. J. A. (2007). On sense and reference: Examining the functional neuroanatomy of referential processing. Poster presented at the 14th Annual meeting of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society (CNS 2007), New York, USA.

Cite as: http://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-002B-AE00-7
In an event-related fMRI study, we investigated to what extent semantic and referential aspects of language comprehension recruit common or dis- tinct neural ensembles. We compared BOLD responses to sentences containing semantically anomalous or coherent words, and to sentences containing referentially ambiguous pronouns (e.g., “Ronald told Frank that he...”), referentially failing pronouns (e.g., “Rose told Emily that he...”) or coherent pronouns. Semantic anomaly elicited activation increases in lateral prefrontal brain regions associated with semantic pro- cessing. Referential failure elicited activation increases in brain regions associated with morphosyntactic processing, and additional activations associated with elaborative inferenc ing if readers took failing pronouns to refer to unmentioned entities. Referential ambiguity selectively recruited medial prefrontal regions, suggesting that readers engaged in problem-solving to select a unique referent from the discourse model. Furthermore, our results showed that semantic anomaly and referential ambiguity recruit overlapping neural ensembles in opposite directions, possibly reflecting the dynamic re cruitment of semantic and episodic processing to resolve semantically or referentially problematic situations. These findings suggest that neurocogni tive accounts of language compre- hension will have to address not just how we parse a sentence and com- bine individual word meanings, bu t also how we determine who’s who and what’s what during sentence and discourse comprehension