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Combining computational controls with natural text reveals aspects of meaning composition

A preprint version of the article is available at bioRxiv.


To study a core component of human intelligence—our ability to combine the meaning of words—neuroscientists have looked to linguistics. However, linguistic theories are insufficient to account for all brain responses reflecting linguistic composition. In contrast, we adopt a data-driven approach to study the composed meaning of words beyond their individual meaning, which we term ‘supra-word meaning’. We construct a computational representation for supra-word meaning and study its brain basis through brain recordings from two complementary imaging modalities. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we reveal that hubs that are thought to process lexical meaning also maintain supra-word meaning, suggesting a common substrate for lexical and combinatorial semantics. Surprisingly, we cannot detect supra-word meaning in magnetoencephalography, which suggests that composed meaning might be maintained through a different neural mechanism than the synchronized firing of pyramidal cells. This sensitivity difference has implications for past neuroimaging results and future wearable neurotechnology.

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Fig. 1: Approach.
Fig. 2: fMRI results.
Fig. 3: MEG prediction results at different spatial granularity.
Fig. 4: Direct comparisons of prediction performance of different meaning embeddings.

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Data availability

Two of the three data sets analysed during this study can be found at for the fMRI data set and at for the MEG data set. The remaining data set is available from the Courtois Neuromod group at Source data for Figs. 24 is available with this manuscript.

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All custom scripts are available without restrictions at


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We thank E. Laing and D. Howarth for help with data collection and preprocessing, and M.J. Tarr for helpful feedback on the manuscript. Research reported in this publication was partially supported by the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders of the National Institutes of Health under award no. R01DC020088. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. This research was also supported in part by a Google Faculty Research Award and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research through research grants FA95501710218 and FA95502010118.

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Authors and Affiliations



L.W. and T.M.M. selected the experimental stimuli. L.W. collected the fMRI and MEG data. All authors helped conceive and design the experimental analyses and analysed the data. M.T. developed the technique to remove shared information in neural network embeddings and conducted subsequent analyses. M.T. and L.W. wrote the original draft of the manuscript. All authors contributed to the review and editing.

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Correspondence to Leila Wehbe.

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Nature Computational Science thanks Katrin Erk, Milena Rabovsky, Chengqing Zong and Willem Zuidema for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Handling editor: Kaitlin McCardle, in collaboration with the Nature Computational Science team. Peer reviewer reports are available.

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Source Data Fig. 2

Statistical source data for Fig. 2b and the ATL and PTL sides of Fig. 2c.

Source Data Fig. 3

Statistical source data for Fig. 3.

Source Data Fig. 4

Statistical source data for Fig. 4.

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Toneva, M., Mitchell, T.M. & Wehbe, L. Combining computational controls with natural text reveals aspects of meaning composition. Nat Comput Sci 2, 745–757 (2022).

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