Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Most words in natural language are polysemous, that is, they can be used in more than one way. For example, paper can be used to refer to a substance made out of wood pulp or to a daily publication printed on that substance. Although virtually every sentence contains polysemy, there is little agreement as to how polysemy is represented in the mental lexicon. Do different uses of polysemous words involve access to a single representation or do our minds store distinct representations for each different sense? Here we investigated priming between senses with a combination of behavioral and magnetoencephalographic measures in order to test whether different senses of the same word involve identity or mere formal and semantic similarity. Our results show that polysemy effects are clearly distinct from similarity effects bilaterally. In the left hemisphere, sense-relatedness elicited shorter latencies of the M350 source, which has been hypothesized to index lexical activation. Concurrent activity in the right hemisphere, on the other hand, peaked later for sense-related than for unrelated target stimuli, suggesting competition between related senses. The obtained pattern of results supports models in which the representation of polysemy involves both representational identity and difference: Related senses connect to same abstract lexical representation, but are distinctly listed within that representation.