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Semantically Ambiguous

  • 1Department of Experimental Psychology, University College London, London, UK
  • 2Department of Language and Communication, University College London, London, UK

Semantic ambiguity resolution is an essential and frequent part of speech comprehension because many words map onto multiple meanings (e.g., “bark, ” “bank”). Neuroimaging research highlights the importance of the left inferior frontal gyrus (LIFG) and the left posterior temporal cortex in this process but the roles they serve in ambiguity resolution are uncertain. One possibility is that both regions are engaged in the processes of semantic reinterpretation that follows incorrect interpretation of an ambiguous word. Here we used fMRI to investigate this hypothesis. 20 native British English monolinguals were scanned whilst listening to sentences that contained an ambiguous word. To induce semantic reinterpretation, the disambiguating information was presented after the ambiguous word and delayed until the end of the sentence (e.g., “the teacher explained that the BARK was going to be very damp”). These sentences were compared to well-matched unambiguous sentences. Supporting the reinterpretation hypothesis, these ambiguous sentences produced more activation in both the LIFG and the left posterior inferior temporal cortex. Importantly, all but one subject showed ambiguity-related peaks within both regions, demonstrating that the group-level results were driven by high inter-subject consistency. Further support came from the finding that activation in both regions was modulated by meaning dominance. Specifically, sentences containing biased ambiguous words, which have one more dominant meaning, produced greater activation than those with balanced ambiguous words, which have two equally frequent meanings. Because the context always supported the less frequent meaning, the biased words require reinterpretation more often than balanced words. This is the first evidence of dominance effects in the spoken modality and provides strong support that frontal and temporal regions support the updating of semantic representations during speech comprehension.

Keywords: fMRI, LIFG, lexical ambiguity, speech comprehension, semantics, reinterpretation, sentence processing

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