Innate auditory sensitivities and familiarity with the sounds of language give rise to clear influences of phonemic categories on adult perception of speech. With few exceptions, current models endorse highly left-hemisphere-lateralized mechanisms responsible for the influence of phonemic category on speech perception, based primarily on results from functional imaging and brain-lesion studies. Here we directly test the hypothesis that the right hemisphere does not engage in phonemic analysis. By using fMRI to identify cortical sites sensitive to phonemes in both word and pronounceable nonword contexts, we find evidence that right-hemisphere phonemic sensitivity is limited to a lexical context. We extend the interpretation of these fMRI results through the study of an individual with a left-hemisphere lesion who is right-hemisphere reliant for initial acoustic and phonetic analysis of speech. This individual's performance revealed that the right hemisphere alone was insufficient to allow for typical phonemic category effects but did support the processing of gradient phonetic information in lexical contexts. Taken together, these findings confirm previous claims that the right temporal cortex does not play a primary role in phoneme processing, but they also indicate that lexical context may modulate the involvement of a right hemisphere largely tuned for less abstract dimensions of the speech signal.

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