Spoken word recognition involves the activation of multiple word candidates on the basis of the initial speech input—the “cohort”—and selection among these competitors. Selection may be driven primarily by bottom–up acoustic–phonetic inputs or it may be modulated by other aspects of lexical representation, such as a word's meaning [Marslen-Wilson, W. D. Functional parallelism in spoken word-recognition. Cognition, 25, 71–102, 1987]. We examined these potential interactions in an fMRI study by presenting participants with words and pseudowords for lexical decision. In a factorial design, we manipulated (a) cohort competition (high/low competitive cohorts which vary the number of competing word candidates) and (b) the word's semantic properties (high/low imageability). A previous behavioral study [Tyler, L. K., Voice, J. K., & Moss, H. E. The interaction of meaning and sound in spoken word recognition. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 7, 320–326, 2000] showed that imageability facilitated word recognition but only for words in high competition cohorts. Here we found greater activity in the left inferior frontal gyrus (BA 45, 47) and the right inferior frontal gyrus (BA 47) with increased cohort competition, an imageability effect in the left posterior middle temporal gyrus/angular gyrus (BA 39), and a significant interaction between imageability and cohort competition in the left posterior superior temporal gyrus/middle temporal gyrus (BA 21, 22). In words with high competition cohorts, high imageability words generated stronger activity than low imageability words, indicating a facilitatory role of imageability in a highly competitive cohort context. For words in low competition cohorts, there was no effect of imageability. These results support the behavioral data in showing that selection processes do not rely solely on bottom–up acoustic–phonetic cues but rather that the semantic properties of candidate words facilitate discrimination between competitors.

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