A single word (the noun “elephant”) encapsulates a complex multidimensional meaning, including both perceptual (“big”, “gray”, “trumpeting”) and conceptual (“mammal”, “can be found in India”) features. Opposing theories make different predictions as to whether different features (also conceivable as dimensions of the semantic space) are stored in similar neural regions and recovered with similar temporal dynamics during word reading. In this magnetoencephalography study, we tracked the brain activity of healthy human participants while reading single words varying orthogonally across three semantic dimensions: two perceptual ones (i.e., the average implied real-world size and the average strength of association with a prototypical sound) and a conceptual one (i.e., the semantic category). The results indicate that perceptual and conceptual representations are supported by partially segregated neural networks: Whereas visual and auditory dimensions are encoded in the phase coherence of low-frequency oscillations of occipital and superior temporal regions, respectively, semantic features are encoded in the power of low-frequency oscillations of anterior temporal and inferior parietal areas. However, despite the differences, these representations appear to emerge at the same latency: around 200 msec after stimulus onset. Taken together, these findings suggest that perceptual and conceptual dimensions of the semantic space are recovered automatically, rapidly, and in parallel during word reading.

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