Simple composition

A magnetoencephalography investigation into the comprehension of minimal linguistic phrases

Douglas K. Bemis, Liina Pylkkänen

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

    Abstract

    The expressive power of language lies in its ability to construct an infinite array of ideas out of a finite set of pieces. Surprisingly, few neurolinguistic investigations probe the basic processes that constitute the foundation of this ability, choosing instead to focus on relatively complex combinatorial operations. Contrastingly, in the present work, we investigate the neural circuits underlying simple linguistic composition, such as required by the minimal phrase "red boat." Using magnetoencephalography, we examined activity in humans generated at the visual presentation of target nouns, such as "boat," and varied the combinatorial operations induced by its surrounding context. Nouns in minimal compositional contexts ("red boat") were compared with those appearing in matched noncompositional contexts, such as after an unpronounceable consonant string ("xkq boat") or within a list ("cup, boat"). Source analysis did not implicate traditional language areas (inferior frontal gyrus, posterior temporal regions) in such basic composition. Instead, we found increased combinatorial-related activity in the left anterior temporal lobe (LATL) and ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC). These regions have been linked previously to syntactic (LATL) and semantic (vmPFC) combinatorial processing in more complex linguistic contexts. Thus, we suggest that these regions play a role in basic syntactic and semantic composition, respectively. Importantly, the temporal ordering of the effects, in which LATL activity (∼225 ms) precedes vmPFC activity (∼400 ms), is consistent with many processing models that posit syntactic composition before semantic composition during the construction of linguistic representations.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Pages (from-to)2801-2814
    Number of pages14
    JournalJournal of Neuroscience
    Volume31
    Issue number8
    DOIs
    StatePublished - Feb 23 2011

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    Magnetoencephalography
    Ships
    Linguistics
    Temporal Lobe
    Prefrontal Cortex
    Semantics
    Aptitude
    Language
    Human Activities

    ASJC Scopus subject areas

    • Neuroscience(all)

    Cite this

    Simple composition : A magnetoencephalography investigation into the comprehension of minimal linguistic phrases. / Bemis, Douglas K.; Pylkkänen, Liina.

    In: Journal of Neuroscience, Vol. 31, No. 8, 23.02.2011, p. 2801-2814.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

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