Context free and context-dependent conceptual representation in the brain

Cereb Cortex. 2022 Dec 15;33(1):152-166. doi: 10.1093/cercor/bhac058.


How concepts are coded in the brain is a core issue in cognitive neuroscience. Studies have focused on how individual concepts are processed, but the way in which conceptual representation changes to suit the context is unclear. We parametrically manipulated the association strength between words, presented in pairs one word at a time using a slow event-related fMRI design. We combined representational similarity analysis and computational linguistics to probe the neurocomputational content of these trials. Individual word meaning was maintained in supramarginal gyrus (associated with verbal short-term memory) when items were judged to be unrelated, but not when a linking context was retrieved. Context-dependent meaning was instead represented in left lateral prefrontal gyrus (associated with controlled retrieval), angular gyrus, and ventral temporal lobe (regions associated with integrative aspects of memory). Analyses of informational connectivity, examining the similarity of activation patterns across trials between sites, showed that control network regions had more similar multivariate responses across trials when association strength was weak, reflecting a common controlled retrieval state when the task required more unusual associations. These findings indicate that semantic control and representational sites amplify contextually relevant meanings in trials judged to be related.

Keywords: conceptual representation; context-dependent meaning; context-invariant meaning; fMRI; representational similarity analysis.

MeSH terms

  • Brain / diagnostic imaging
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Parietal Lobe
  • Semantics*
  • Temporal Lobe / physiology