Lexical and syntactic representations in the brain: An fMRI investigation with multi-voxel pattern analyses

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Abstract

Work in theoretical linguistics and psycholinguistics suggests that human linguistic knowledge forms a continuum between individual lexical items and abstract syntactic representations, with most linguistic representations falling between the two extremes and taking the form of lexical items stored together with the syntactic/semantic contexts in which they frequently occur. Neuroimaging evidence further suggests that no brain region is selectively sensitive to only lexical information or only syntactic information. Instead, all the key brain regions that support high-level linguistic processing have been implicated in both lexical and syntactic processing, suggesting that our linguistic knowledge is plausibly represented in a distributed fashion in these brain regions. Given this distributed nature of linguistic representations, multi-voxel pattern analyses (MVPAs) can help uncover important functional properties of the language system. In the current study we use MVPAs to ask two questions: (1) Do language brain regions differ in how robustly they represent lexical vs. syntactic information? and (2) Do any of the language bran regions distinguish between “pure” lexical information (lists of words) and “pure” abstract syntactic information (jabberwocky sentences) in the pattern of activity? We show that lexical information is represented more robustly than syntactic information across many language regions (with no language region showing the opposite pattern), as evidenced by a better discrimination between conditions that differ along the lexical dimension (sentences vs. jabberwocky, and word lists vs. nonword lists) than between conditions that differ along the syntactic dimension (sentences vs. word lists, and jabberwocky vs. nonword lists). This result suggests that lexical information may play a more critical role than syntax in the representation of linguistic meaning. We also show that several language regions reliably discriminate between “pure” lexical information and “pure” abstract syntactic information in their patterns of neural activity.

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