Knowing what you need to know in advance: The neural processes underpinning flexible semantic retrieval of thematic and taxonomic relations

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Semantic retrieval is flexible, allowing us to focus on subsets of features and associations that are relevant to the current task or context: for example, we use taxonomic relations to locate items in the supermarket (carrots are a vegetable), but thematic associations to decide which tools we need when cooking (carrot goes with peeler). We used fMRI to investigate the neural basis of this form of semantic flexibility; in particular, we asked how retrieval unfolds differently when participants have advanced knowledge of the type of link to retrieve between concepts (taxonomic or thematic). Participants performed a semantic relatedness judgement task: on half the trials, they were cued to search for a taxonomic or thematic link, while on the remaining trials, they judged relatedness without knowing which type of semantic relationship would be relevant. Left inferior frontal gyrus showed greater activation when participants knew the trial type in advance. An overlapping region showed a stronger response when the semantic relationship between the items was weaker, suggesting this structure supports both top-down and bottom-up forms of semantic control. Multivariate pattern analysis further revealed that the neural response in left inferior frontal gyrus reflects goal information related to different conceptual relationships. Top-down control specifically modulated the response in visual cortex: when the goal was unknown, there was greater deactivation to the first word, and greater activation to the second word. We conclude that top-down control of semantic retrieval is primarily achieved through the gating of task-relevant ‘spoke’ regions.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - 28 Sept 2020

Bibliographical note

This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy.


  • Semantic cognition
  • Control
  • Executive
  • Top-down
  • Left inferior frontal gyrus
  • Hub and spoke model

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