Composition of complex numbers: Delineating the computational role of the left anterior temporal lobe

Esti Blanco-Elorrieta, Liina Pylkkänen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


What is the neurobiological basis of our ability to create complex messages with language? Results from multiple methodologies have converged on a set of brain regions as relevant for this general process, but the computational details of these areas remain to be characterized. The left anterior temporal lobe (LATL) has been a consistent node within this network, with results suggesting that although it rather systematically shows increased activation for semantically complex structured stimuli, this effect does not extend to number phrases such as 'three books.' In the present work we used magnetoencephalography to investigate whether numbers in general are an invalid input to the combinatory operations housed in the LATL or whether the lack of LATL engagement for stimuli such as 'three books' is due to the quantificational nature of such phrases. As a relevant test case, we employed complex number terms such as 'twenty-three', where one number term is not a quantifier of the other but rather, the two terms form a type of complex concept. In a number naming paradigm, participants viewed rows of numbers and depending on task instruction, named them as complex number terms ('twenty-three'), numerical quantifications ('two threes'), adjectival modifications ('blue threes') or non-combinatory lists (e.g., 'two, three'). While quantificational phrases failed to engage the LATL as compared to non-combinatory controls, both complex number terms and adjectival modifications elicited a reliable activity increase in the LATL. Our results show that while the LATL does not participate in the enumeration of tokens within a set, exemplified by the quantificational phrases, it does support conceptual combination, including the composition of complex number concepts.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)194-203
Number of pages10
StatePublished - Jan 1 2016


  • Complex number composition
  • Conceptual combination
  • Left anterior temporal lobe
  • Magnetoencephalography
  • Numerical quantification

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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