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Tracking down abstract linguistic meaning: Neural correlates of spatial frame of reference ambiguities in language

Janzen, G., Haun, D. B. M., & Levinson, S. C. (2012). Tracking down abstract linguistic meaning: Neural correlates of spatial frame of reference ambiguities in language. PLoS One, 7(2), e30657. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0030657.
This functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study investigates a crucial parameter in spatial description, namely variants in the frame of reference chosen. Two frames of reference are available in European languages for the description of small-scale assemblages, namely the intrinsic (or object-oriented) frame and the relative (or egocentric) frame. We showed participants a sentence such as “the ball is in front of the man”, ambiguous between the two frames, and then a picture of a scene with a ball and a man – participants had to respond by indicating whether the picture did or did not match the sentence. There were two blocks, in which we induced each frame of reference by feedback. Thus for the crucial test items, participants saw exactly the same sentence and the same picture but now from one perspective, now the other. Using this method, we were able to precisely pinpoint the pattern of neural activation associated with each linguistic interpretation of the ambiguity, while holding the perceptual stimuli constant. Increased brain activity in bilateral parahippocampal gyrus was associated with the intrinsic frame of reference whereas increased activity in the right superior frontal gyrus and in the parietal lobe was observed for the relative frame of reference. The study is among the few to show a distinctive pattern of neural activation for an abstract yet specific semantic parameter in language. It shows with special clarity the nature of the neural substrate supporting each frame of spatial reference
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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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