Neural correlate of the construction of sentence meaning

Evelina Fedorenko, Terri L. Scott, Peter Brunner, William G. Coon, Brianna Pritchett, Gerwin Schalk, Nancy Kanwisher

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

65 Scopus citations


The neural processes that underlie your ability to read and understand this sentence are unknown. Sentence comprehension occurs very rapidly, and can only be understood at a mechanistic level by discovering the precise sequence of underlying computational and neural events. However, we have no continuous and online neural measure of sentence processing with high spatial and temporal resolution. Here we report just such a measure: intracranial recordings from the surface of the human brain show that neural activity, indexed by γ-power, increases monotonically over the course of a sentence as people read it. This steady increase in activity is absent when people read and remember nonword-lists, despite the higher cognitive demand entailed, ruling out accounts in terms of generic attention, working memory, and cognitive load. Response increases are lower for sentence structure without meaning ("Jabberwocky" sentences) and word meaning without sentence structure (word-lists), showing that this effect is not explained by responses to syntax or word meaning alone. Instead, the full effect is found only for sentences, implicating compositional processes of sentence understanding, a striking and unique feature of human language not shared with animal communication systems. This work opens up new avenues for investigating the sequence of neural events that underlie the construction of linguistic meaning.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)E6256-E6262
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
Issue number41
StatePublished - Oct 11 2016


  • Compositionality
  • ECoG
  • Language
  • Semantics
  • Syntax


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