Representational similarity analysis reveals commonalities and differences in the semantic processing of words and objects.


Understanding the meanings of words and objects requires the activation of underlying conceptual representations. Semantic representations are often assumed to be coded such that meaning is evoked regardless of the input modality. However, the extent to which meaning is coded in modality-independent or amodal systems remains controversial. We address this issue in a human fMRI study investigating the neural processing of concepts, presented separately as written words and pictures. Activation maps for each individual word and picture were used as input for searchlight-based multivoxel pattern analyses. Representational similarity analysis was used to identify regions correlating with low-level visual models of the words and objects and the semantic category structure common to both. Common semantic category effects for both modalities were found in a left-lateralized network, including left posterior middle temporal gyrus (LpMTG), left angular gyrus, and left intraparietal sulcus (LIPS), in addition to object- and word-specific semantic processing in ventral temporal cortex and more anterior MTG, respectively. To explore differences in representational content across regions and modalities, we developed novel data-driven analyses, based on k-means clustering of searchlight dissimilarity matrices and seeded correlation analysis. These revealed subtle differences in the representations in semantic-sensitive regions, with representations in LIPS being relatively invariant to stimulus modality and representations in LpMTG being uncorrelated across modality. These results suggest that, although both LpMTG and LIPS are involved in semantic processing, only the functional role of LIPS is the same regardless of the visual input, whereas the functional role of LpMTG differs for words and objects.