Automaticity of phonological and semantic processing during visual word recognition
Reading involves activation of phonological and semantic knowledge. Yet, the automaticity of the activation of these representations remains subject to debate. The present study addressed this issue by examining how different brain areas involved in language processing responded to a manipulation of bottom-up (level of visibility) and top-down information (task demands) applied to written words. The analyses showed that the same brain areas were activated in response to written words whether the task was symbol detection, rime detection, or semantic judgment. This network included posterior, temporal and prefrontal regions, which clearly suggests the involvement of orthographic, semantic and phonological/articulatory processing in all tasks. However, we also found interactions between task and stimulus visibility, which reflected the fact that the strength of the neural responses to written words in several high-level language areas varied across tasks. Together, our findings suggest that the involvement of phonological and semantic processing in reading is supported by two complementary mechanisms. First, an automatic mechanism that results from a task-independent spread of activation throughout a network in which orthography is linked to phonology and semantics. Second, a mechanism that further fine-tunes the sensitivity of high-level language areas to the sensory input in a task-dependent manner.