Abstract

Successful language comprehension requires one to correctly match symbols in an utterance to referents in the world, but the rampant ambiguity present in that mapping poses a challenge. Sometimes the ambiguity lies in which of two (or more) types of things in the world are under discussion (i.e., lexical ambiguity); however, even a word with a single sense can have an ambiguous referent. This ambiguity occurs when an object can exist in multiple states. Here, we consider two cases in which the presence of multiple object states may render a single-sense word ambiguous. In the first case, one must disambiguate between two states of a single object token in a short discourse. In the second case, the discourse establishes two different tokens of the object category. Both cases involve multiple object states: These states are mutually exclusive in the first case, whereas in the second case, these states can logically exist at the same time. We use fMRI to contrast same-token and different-token discourses, using responses in left posterior ventrolateral prefrontal cortex (pVLPFC) as an indicator of conflict. Because the left pVLPFC is sensitive to competition between multiple, incompatible representations, we predicted that state ambiguity should engender conflict only when those states are mutually exclusive. Indeed, we find evidence of conflict in same-token, but not different-token, discourses. Our data support a theory of left pVLPFC function in which general conflict resolution mechanisms are engaged to select between multiple incompatible representations that arise in many kinds of ambiguity present in language.

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