Abstract

Visual word recognition is often described as automatic, but the functional locus of top–down effects is still a matter of debate. Do task demands modulate how information is retrieved, or only how it is used? We used EEG/MEG recordings to assess whether, when, and how task contexts modify early retrieval of specific psycholinguistic information in occipitotemporal cortex, an area likely to contribute to early stages of visual word processing. Using a parametric approach, we analyzed the spatiotemporal response patterns of occipitotemporal cortex for orthographic, lexical, and semantic variables in three psycholinguistic tasks: silent reading, lexical decision, and semantic decision. Task modulation of word frequency and imageability effects occurred simultaneously in ventral occipitotemporal regions—in the vicinity of the putative visual word form area—around 160 msec, following task effects on orthographic typicality around 100 msec. Frequency and typicality also produced task-independent effects in anterior temporal lobe regions after 200 msec. The early task modulation for several specific psycholinguistic variables indicates that occipitotemporal areas integrate perceptual input with prior knowledge in a task-dependent manner. Still, later task-independent effects in anterior temporal lobes suggest that word recognition eventually leads to retrieval of semantic information irrespective of task demands. We conclude that even a highly overlearned visual task like word recognition should be described as flexible rather than automatic.

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