Duality of function: Activation for meaningless nonwords and semantic codes in the same brain areas

Samantha R. Mattheiss, Hillary Levinson, William W. Graves

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

5 Scopus citations


Studies of the neural substrates of semantic (word meaning) processing have typically focused on semantic manipulations, with less consideration for potential differences in difficulty across conditions. While the idea that particular brain regions can support multiple functions is widely accepted, studies of specific cognitive domains rarely test for co-location with other functions. Here we start with standard univariate analyses comparing words to meaningless nonwords, replicating our recent finding that this contrast can activate task-positive regions for words, and default-mode regions in the putative semantic network for nonwords, pointing to difficulty effects. Critically, this was followed up with a multivariate analysis to test whether the same areas activated for meaningless nonwords contained semantic information sufficient to distinguish high- from low-imageability words. Indeed, this classification was performed reliably better than chance at 75% accuracy. This is compatible with two non-exclusive interpretations. Numerous areas in the default-mode network are task-negative in the sense of activating for less demanding conditions, and the same areas contain information supporting semantic cognition. Therefore, while areas of the default mode network have been hypothesized to support semantic cognition, we offer evidence that these areas can respond to both domain-general difficulty effects, and to specific aspects of semantics.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2516-2524
Number of pages9
JournalCerebral Cortex
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jan 1 2018


All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


  • Difficulty effects
  • FMRI
  • MVPA
  • Reading
  • Word recognition

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