Predicting brain activation patterns associated with individual lexical concepts based on five sensory-motor attributes

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While major advances have been made in uncovering the neural processes underlying perceptual representations, our grasp of how the brain gives rise to conceptual knowledge remains relatively poor. Recent work has provided strong evidence that concepts rely, at least in part, on the same sensory and motor neural systems through which they were acquired, but it is still unclear whether the neural code for concept representation uses information about sensory-motor features to discriminate between concepts. In the present study, we investigate this question by asking whether an encoding model based on five semantic attributes directly related to sensory-motor experience – sound, color, visual motion, shape, and manipulation – can successfully predict patterns of brain activation elicited by individual lexical concepts. We collected ratings on the relevance of these five attributes to the meaning of 820 words, and used these ratings as predictors in a multiple regression model of the fMRI signal associated with the words in a separate group of participants. The five resulting activation maps were then combined by linear summation to predict the distributed activation pattern elicited by a novel set of 80 test words. The encoding model predicted the activation patterns elicited by the test words significantly better than chance. As expected, prediction was successful for concrete but not for abstract concepts. Comparisons between encoding models based on different combinations of attributes indicate that all five attributes contribute to the representation of concrete concepts. Consistent with embodied theories of semantics, these results show, for the first time, that the distributed activation pattern associated with a concept combines information about different sensory-motor attributes according to their respective relevance. Future research should investigate how additional features of phenomenal experience contribute to the neural representation of conceptual knowledge.

Fernandino, L, Humphries, CJ, Seidenberg, MS, Gross, WL, Conant LL, Binder, JR (2015) Predicting brain activation patterns associated with individual lexical concepts based on five sensory-motor attributes. Neuropsychologia; doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2015.04.009

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