Research Post

Neural representation of words within phrases: Temporal evolution of color-adjectives and object-nouns during simple composition


In language, stored semantic representations of lexical items combine into an infinitude of complex expressions. While the neuroscience of composition has begun to mature, we do not yet understand how the stored representations evolve and morph during composition. New decoding techniques allow us to crack open this very hard question: we can train a model to recognize a representation in one context or time-point and assess its accuracy in another. We combined the decoding approach with magnetoencephalography recorded during a picture naming task to investigate the temporal evolution of noun and adjective representations during speech planning. We tracked semantic representations as they combined into simple two-word phrases, using single words and two-word lists as non-combinatory controls. We found that nouns were generally more decodable than adjectives, suggesting that noun representations were stronger and/or more consistent across trials than those of adjectives. When training and testing across contexts and times, the representations of isolated nouns were recoverable when those nouns were embedded in phrases, but not so if they were embedded in lists. Adjective representations did not show a similar consistency across isolated and phrasal contexts. Noun representations in phrases also sustained over time in a way that was not observed for any other pairing of word class and context. These findings offer a new window into the temporal evolution and context sensitivity of word representations during composition, revealing a clear asymmetry between adjectives and nouns. The impact of phrasal contexts on the decodability of nouns may be due to the nouns’ status as head of phrase—an intriguing hypothesis for future research.

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