The contribution of the left anterior ventrolateral temporal lobe to the retrieval of personal semantics

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Abstract

Autobiographical facts and personal trait knowledge are conceptualized as distinct types of personal semantics, but the cognitive and neural mechanisms that separate them remain underspecified. One distinction may be their level of specificity, with autobiographical facts reflecting idiosyncratic conceptual knowledge and personal traits representing basic level category knowledge about the self. Given the critical role of the left anterior ventrolateral temporal lobe (AVTL) in the storage and retrieval of semantic information about unique entities, we hypothesized that knowledge of autobiographical facts may depend on the integrity of this region to a greater extent than personal traits. To provide neuropsychological evidence relevant to this issue, we investigated personal semantics, semantic knowledge of non-personal unique entities, and episodic memory in two individuals with well-defined left (MK) versus right (DW) AVTL lesions. Relative to controls, MK demonstrated preserved personal trait knowledge but impaired “experience-far” (i.e., spatiotemporal independent) autobiographical fact knowledge, semantic memory for non-personal unique entities, and episodic memory. In contrast, both experience-far autobiographical facts and personal traits were spared in DW, whereas episodic memory and aspects of semantic memory for non-personal unique entities were impaired. These findings support the notion that autobiographical facts and personal traits have distinct cognitive features and neural mechanisms. They also suggest a common organizing principle for personal and non-personal semantics, namely the specificity of such knowledge to an entity, which is reflected in the contribution of the left AVTL to retrieval.

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