Same words, different structures: An fMRI investigation of argument relations and the angular gyrus

William Matchin, Chia-Hsuan Liao, Phoebe Gaston, Ellen Lau

In fMRI, increased activation for combinatorial syntactic and semantic processing is typically observed in a set of left hemisphere brain areas: the angular gyrus (AG), the anterior temporal lobe (ATL), the posterior superior temporal sulcus (pSTS), and the inferior frontal gyrus (IFG). Recent work has suggested that semantic combination is supported by the ATL and the AG, with a division of labor in which AG is involved in event concepts and ATL is involved in encoding conceptual features of entities and/or more general forms of semantic combination. The current fMRI study was designed to refine hypotheses about the angular gyrus processes in question. In particular, we ask whether the AG supports the computation of argument structure (a linguistic notion that depends on a verb taking other phrases as arguments) or the computation of event concepts more broadly. To distinguish these possibilities we used a novel, lexically-matched contrast: noun phrases (NP) (the frightened boy) and verb phrases (VP) (frightened the boy), where VPs contained argument structure, denoting an event and assigning a thematic role to its argument, and NPs did not, denoting only a semantically enriched entity. Results showed that while many regions showed increased activity for NPs and VPs relative to unstructured word lists (AG, ATL, pSTS, anterior IFG), replicating evidence of their involvement in combinatorial processing, neither AG or ATL showed differences in activation between the VP and NP conditions. These results suggest that increased AG activity does not reflect the computation of argument structure per se, but are compatible with a view in which the AG represents event information denoted by words such as frightened independent of their grammatical context. By contrast, pSTS and posterior IFG did show increased activation for the VPs relative to NPs. We suggest that these effects may reflect differences in syntactic processing and working memory engaged by different structural relations.