Linking language to the visual world: Neural correlates of comprehending verbal reference to objects through pointing and visual cues

In everyday communication speakers often refer in speech and/or gesture to objects in their immediate environment, thereby shifting their addressee's attention to an intended referent. The neurobiological infrastructure involved in the comprehension of such basic multimodal communicative acts remains unclear. In an event-related fMRI study, we presented participants with pictures of a speaker and two objects while they concurrently listened to her speech. In each picture, one of the objects was singled out, either through the speaker's index-finger pointing gesture or through a visual cue that made the object perceptually more salient in the absence of gesture. A mismatch (compared to a match) between speech and the object singled out by the speaker's pointing gesture led to enhanced activation in left IFG and bilateral pMTG, showing the importance of these areas in conceptual matching between speech and referent. Moreover, a match (compared to a mismatch) between speech and the object made salient through a visual cue led to enhanced activation in the mentalizing system, arguably reflecting an attempt to converge on a jointly attended referent in the absence of pointing. These findings shed new light on the neurobiological underpinnings of the core communicative process of comprehending a speaker's multimodal referential act and stress the power of pointing as an important natural device to link speech to objects.
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