Language in Context: MEG Evidence for Modality-General and -Specific Responses to Reference Resolution


Successful language comprehension critically depends on our ability to link linguistic expressions to the entities they refer to. Without reference resolution, newly encountered language cannot be related to previously acquired knowledge. The human experience includes many different types of referents, some visual, some auditory, some very abstract. Does the neural basis of reference resolution depend on the nature of the referents, or do our brains use a modality-general mechanism for linking meanings to referents? Here we report evidence for both. Using magnetoencephalography (MEG), we varied both the modality of referents, which consisted either of visual or auditory objects, and the point at which reference resolution was possible within sentences. Source-localized MEG responses revealed brain activity associated with reference resolution that was independent of the modality of the referents, localized to the medial parietal lobe and starting ∼415 ms after the onset of reference resolving words. A modality-specific response to reference resolution in auditory domains was also found, in the vicinity of auditory cortex. Our results suggest that referential language processing cannot be reduced to processing in classical language regions and representations of the referential domain in modality-specific neural systems. Instead, our results suggest that reference resolution engages medial parietal cortex, which supports a mechanism for referential processing regardless of the content modality.