A Task-Dependent Causal Role for Low-Level Visual Processes in Spoken Word Comprehension

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It is well established that the comprehension of spoken words referring to object concepts relies on high-level visual areas in the ventral stream that build increasingly abstract representations. It is much less clear whether basic low-level visual representations are also involved. Here we asked in what task situations low-level visual representations contribute functionally to concrete word comprehension using an interference paradigm. We interfered with basic visual processing while participants performed a concreteness task (Experiment 1), a lexical-decision task (Experiment 2), and a word class judgment task (Experiment 3). We found that visual noise interfered more with concrete versus abstract word processing, but only when the task required visual information to be accessed. This suggests that basic visual processes can be causally involved in language comprehension, but that their recruitment is not automatic and rather depends on the type of information that is required in a given task situation.

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