Disentangling semantic composition and semantic association in the left temporal lobe

Jixing Li, Liina Pylkkänen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although composing two words into a complex representation (e.g., “coffee cake”) is conceptually different from forming associations between a pair of words (e.g., “coffee, cake”), the brain regions supporting semantic composition have also been implicated for associative encoding. Here, we adopted a two-word magnetoencephalography (MEG) paradigm which varies compositionality (“French/Korean cheese” vs “France/Korea cheese”) and strength of association (“France/French cheese” vs “Korea/Korean cheese”) between the two words. We collected MEG data while 42 English speakers (24 females) viewed the two words successively in the scanner, and we applied both univariate regression analyses and multivariate pattern classification to the source estimates of the two words. We show that the left anterior temporal lobe (LATL) and left middle temporal lobe (LMTL) are distinctively modulated by semantic composition and semantic association. Specifically, the LATL is mostly sensitive to high-association compositional phrases, while the LMTL responds more to low-association compositional phrases. Pattern-based directed connectivity analyses further revealed a continuous information flow from the anterior to the middle temporal region, suggesting that the integration of adjective and noun properties originated earlier in the LATL is consistently delivered to the LMTL when the complex meaning is newly encountered. Taken together, our findings shed light into a functional dissociation within the left temporal lobe for compositional and distributional semantic processing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6526-6538
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number30
StatePublished - Jul 28 2021


  • LATL
  • LMTL
  • MEG
  • Semantic association
  • Semantic composition
  • Brain Mapping/methods
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Association Learning/physiology
  • Comprehension/physiology
  • Temporal Lobe/physiology
  • Magnetoencephalography/methods
  • Semantics
  • Memory/physiology
  • Female

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience


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