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Neuroimage. 2006 Oct 15;33(1):343-61. Epub 2006 Jul 28.

Making sense of discourse: an fMRI study of causal inferencing across sentences.

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Department of Psychology, Tufts University, 490 Boston Avenue, Medford, MA 02155, USA.


To build up coherence between sentences (comprehend discourse), we must draw inferences, i.e. activate and integrate information that is not actually stated. We used event-related fMRI to determine the localization and extent of brain activity mediating causal inferencing across short, three-sentence scenarios. Participants read and made causal coherence judgments to sentences that were highly causally related, intermediately related or unrelated to their preceding two-sentence contexts. The highly related and intermediately related scenarios were matched in terms of semantic similarities between their individual component words. A pre-rating study established that causal inferences were generated to the intermediately related but not to the highly related or unrelated scenarios. In the scanner, sentences that were intermediately related (relative to highly related or unrelated) to their preceding contexts were associated with longer judgment reaction times and sustained increases in hemodynamic activity within left lateral temporal/inferior parietal/prefrontal cortices, the right inferior prefrontal gyrus and bilateral superior medial prefrontal cortices. In contrast, sentences that were unrelated (relative to highly related) to their preceding contexts were associated with only transient increases in activity (at, but not after, the peak of the hemodynamic response) within the right lateral temporal cortex and the right inferior prefrontal gyrus. These data suggest that, to make sense of discourse, we activate a large bilateral cortical network in response to what is not explicitly stated. We suggest that this network reflects the activation, retrieval and integration of information from long-term semantic memory into incoming discourse structure during causal inferencing.

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