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The neural correlates of morphological complexity processing: Detecting structure in pseudowords


Hartwigsen,  Gesa
Department Neuropsychology, MPI for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Max Planck Society;

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Schuster, S., Scharinger, M., Brooks, C., Lahiri, A., & Hartwigsen, G. (2018). The neural correlates of morphological complexity processing: Detecting structure in pseudowords. Human Brain Mapping. doi:10.1002/hbm.23975.

Morphological complexity is a highly debated issue in visual word recognition. Previous neuroimaging studies have shown that speakers are sensitive to degrees of morphological complexity. Two-step derived complex words (bridging through bridgeN > bridgeV > bridging) led to more enhanced activation in the left inferior frontal gyrus than their 1-step derived counterparts (running through runV > running). However, it remains unclear whether sensitivity to degrees of morphological complexity extends to pseudowords. If this were the case, it would indicate that abstract knowledge of morphological structure is independent of lexicality. We addressed this question by investigating the processing of two sets of pseudowords in German. Both sets contained morphologically viable two-step derived pseudowords differing in the number of derivational steps required to access an existing lexical representation and therefore the degree of structural analysis expected during processing. Using a 2 × 2 factorial design, we found lexicality effects to be distinct from processing signatures relating to structural analysis in pseudowords. Semantically-driven processes such as lexical search showed a more frontal distribution while combinatorial processes related to structural analysis engaged more parietal parts of the network. Specifically, more complex pseudowords showed increased activation in parietal regions (right superior parietal lobe and left precuneus) relative to pseudowords that required less structural analysis to arrive at an existing lexical representation. As the two sets were matched on cohort size and surface form, these results highlight the role of internal levels of morphological structure even in forms that do not possess a lexical representation.