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Understanding communicative actions: A repetitive TMS study

Stolk, A., Noordzij, M. L., Volman, I., Verhagen, L., Overeem, S., van Elswijk, G., Bloem, B., Hagoort, P., & Toni, I. (2014). Understanding communicative actions: A repetitive TMS study. Cortex, 51, 25-34. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2013.10.005.
Despite the ambiguity inherent in human communication, people are remarkably efficient in establishing mutual understanding. Studying how people communicate in novel settings provides a window into the mechanisms supporting the human competence to rapidly generate and understand novel shared symbols, a fundamental property of human communication. Previous work indicates that the right posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS) is involved when people understand the intended meaning of novel communicative actions. Here, we set out to test whether normal functioning of this cerebral structure is required for understanding novel communicative actions using inhibitory low-frequency repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS). A factorial experimental design contrasted two tightly matched stimulation sites (right pSTS vs. left MT+, i.e. a contiguous homotopic task-relevant region) and tasks (a communicative task vs. a visual tracking task that used the same sequences of stimuli). Overall task performance was not affected by rTMS, whereas changes in task performance over time were disrupted according to TMS site and task combinations. Namely, rTMS over pSTS led to a diminished ability to improve action understanding on the basis of recent communicative history, while rTMS over MT+ perturbed improvement in visual tracking over trials. These findings qualify the contributions of the right pSTS to human communicative abilities, showing that this region might be necessary for incorporating previous knowledge, accumulated during interactions with a communicative partner, to constrain the inferential process that leads to action understanding.
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

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