Spatial attention underpins social word learning in the right fronto-parietal network

Verga, L., & Kotz, S. A. (2019). Spatial attention underpins social word learning in the right fronto-parietal network. NeuroImage, 195, 165-173. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.03.071.
In a multi- and inter-cultural world, we daily encounter new words. Adult learners often rely on a situational context to learn and understand a new word's meaning. Here, we explored whether interactive learning facilitates word learning by directing the learner's attention to a correct new word referent when a situational context is non-informative. We predicted larger involvement of inferior parietal, frontal, and visual cortices involved in visuo-spatial attention during interactive learning. We scanned participants while they played a visual word learning game with and without a social partner. As hypothesized, interactive learning enhanced activity in the right Supramarginal Gyrus when the situational context provided little information. Activity in the right Inferior Frontal Gyrus during interactive learning correlated with post-scanning behavioral test scores, while these scores correlated with activity in the Fusiform Gyrus in the non-interactive group. These results indicate that attention is involved in interactive learning when the situational context is minimal and suggest that individual learning processes may be largely different from interactive ones. As such, they challenge the ecological validity of what we know about individual learning and advocate the exploration of interactive learning in naturalistic settings.
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