Differentiating lexical form, meaning, and structure in the neural language system.


A technique for studying the relationship between brain and language, which involves correlating scores on two continuous variables, signal intensity across the entire brains of brain-damaged patients and behavioral priming scores, was used to investigate a central issue in cognitive neuroscience: Are the components of the neural language system organized as a single undifferentiated process, or do they respond differentially to different types of linguistic structure? Differences in lexical structure, in the form of the regular and irregular past tense, have proven to be critical in this debate by contrasting a highly predictable rule-like process (e.g., jump-jumped) with an unpredictable idiosyncratic process typified by the irregulars (e.g., think-thought). The key issue raised by these contrasts is whether processing regular and irregular past tense forms differentially engages different aspects of the neural language system or whether they are processed within a single system that distinguishes between them purely on the basis of phonological and semantic differences. The correlational analyses provide clear evidence for a functional differentiation between different brain regions associated with the processing of lexical form, meaning, and morphological structure.