Neural correlates of implicit and explicit combinatorial semantic processing

William W. Graves, Jeffrey R. Binder, Rutvik H. Desai, Lisa L. Conant, Mark S. Seidenberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

68 Scopus citations


Language consists of sequences of words, but comprehending phrases involves more than concatenating meanings: A boat house is a shelter for boats, whereas a summer house is a house used during summer, and a ghost house is typically uninhabited. Little is known about the brain bases of combinatorial semantic processes. We performed two fMRI experiments using familiar, highly meaningful phrases (lake house) and unfamiliar phrases with minimal meaning created by reversing the word order of the familiar items (house lake). The first experiment used a 1-back matching task to assess implicit semantic processing, and the second used a classification task to engage explicit semantic processing. These conditions required processing of the same words, but with more effective combinatorial processing in the meaningful condition. The contrast of meaningful versus reversed phrases revealed activation primarily during the classification task, to a greater extent in the right hemisphere, including right angular gyrus, dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, and bilateral posterior cingulate/precuneus, areas previously implicated in semantic processing. Positive correlations of fMRI signal with lexical (word-level) frequency occurred exclusively with the 1-back task and to a greater spatial extent on the left, including left posterior middle temporal gyrus and bilateral parahippocampus. These results reveal strong effects of task demands on engagement of lexical versus combinatorial processing and suggest a hemispheric dissociation between these levels of semantic representation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)638-646
Number of pages9
Issue number2
StatePublished - Nov 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • Concepts
  • Conceptual combination
  • FMRI
  • Language
  • Reading
  • Semantics

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