Neural dynamics of speech act comprehension: an MEG study of Naming and Requesting
The neurobiological basis and temporal dynamics of communicative language processing pose important yet unresolved questions. It has previously been suggested that comprehension of the communicative function of an utterance, i.e. the so-called speech act, is supported by an ensemble of neural networks, comprising lexico-semantic, action and mirror neuron as well as theory of mind circuits, all activated in concert. It has also been demonstrated that recognition of the speech act type occurs extremely rapidly. These findings however, were obtained in experiments with insufficient spatio-temporal resolution, thus possibly concealing important facets of the neural dynamics of the speech act comprehension process. Here, we used magnetoencephalography to investigate the comprehension of Naming and Request actions performed with utterances controlled for physical features, psycholinguistic properties and the probability of occurrence in variable contexts. The results show that different communicative actions are underpinned by a dynamic neural network, which differentiates between speech act types very early after the speech act onset. Within 50-90 ms, Requests engaged mirror-neuron action-comprehension systems in sensorimotor cortex, possibly for processing action knowledge and intentions. Still, within the first 200 ms of stimulus onset (100-150 ms), Naming activated brain areas involved in referential semantic retrieval. Subsequently (200-300 ms), theory of mind and mentalising circuits were activated in medial prefrontal and temporo-parietal areas, possibly indexing processing of intentions and assumptions of both communication partners. This cascade of stages of processing information about actions and intentions, referential semantics, and theory of mind may underlie dynamic and interactive speech act comprehension.