Toward semantics in the wild: Activation to manipulable nouns in naturalistic reading

Rutvik H. Desai, Wonil Choi, Vicky T. Lai, John M. Henderson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

35 Scopus citations


The neural basis of language processing, in the context of naturalistic reading of connected text, is a crucial but largely unexplored area. Here we combined functional MRI and eye tracking to examine the reading of text presented as whole paragraphs in two experiments with human subjects. We registered high-temporal resolution eye-tracking data to a low-temporal resolution BOLD signal to extract responses to single words during naturalistic reading where two to four words are typically processed per second. As a test case of a lexical variable, we examined the response to noun manipulability. In both experiments, signal in the left anterior inferior parietal lobule and posterior inferior temporal gyrus and sulcus was positively correlated with noun manipulability. These regions are associated with both action performance and action semantics, and their activation is consistent with a number of previous studies involving tool words and physical tool use. The results show that even during rapid reading of connected text, where semantics of words may be activated only partially, the meaning of manipulable nouns is grounded in action performance systems. This supports the grounded cognition view of semantics, which posits a close link between sensory–motor and conceptual systems of the brain. On the methodological front, these results demonstrate that BOLD responses to lexical variables during naturalistic reading can be extracted by simultaneous use of eye tracking. This opens up new avenues for the study of language and reading in the context of connected text.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)4050-4055
Number of pages6
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number14
StatePublished - Apr 6 2016


  • Embodiment
  • Eye tracking
  • FMRI
  • Language
  • Reading
  • Semantics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Neuroscience(all)


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