Language beyond the language system: Dorsal visuospatial pathways support processing of demonstratives and spatial language during naturalistic fast fMRI

Roberta Rocca, Kenny R. Coventry, Kristian Tylén, Marlene Staib, Torben E. Lund, Mikkel Wallentin

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25 Citations (Scopus)
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Spatial demonstratives are powerful linguistic tools used to establish joint attention. Identifying the meaning of semantically underspecified expressions like “this one” hinges on the integration of linguistic and visual cues, attentional orienting and pragmatic inference. This synergy between language and extralinguistic cognition is pivotal to language comprehension in general, but especially prominent in demonstratives. In this study, we aimed to elucidate which neural architectures enable this intertwining between language and extralinguistic cognition using a naturalistic fMRI paradigm. In our experiment, 28 participants listened to a specially crafted dialogical narrative with a controlled number of spatial demonstratives. A fast multiband-EPI acquisition sequence (TR = 388 m s) combined with finite impulse response (FIR) modelling of the hemodynamic response was used to capture signal changes at word-level resolution. We found that spatial demonstratives bilaterally engage a network of parietal areas, including the supramarginal gyrus, the angular gyrus, and precuneus, implicated in information integration and visuospatial processing. Moreover, demonstratives recruit frontal regions, including the right FEF, implicated in attentional orienting and reference frames shifts. Finally, using multivariate similarity analyses, we provide evidence for a general involvement of the dorsal (“where”) stream in the processing of spatial expressions, as opposed to ventral pathways encoding object semantics. Overall, our results suggest that language processing relies on a distributed architecture, recruiting neural resources for perception, attention, and extra-linguistic aspects of cognition in a dynamic and context-dependent fashion.

Original languageEnglish
Article number116128
Number of pages16
Early online date29 Aug 2019
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2020


  • Dorsal stream
  • Naturalistic fMRI
  • Spatial cognition
  • Spatial demonstratives
  • Spatial language

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