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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

May 2017, Vol. 29, No. 5, Pages 896-910.
(doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01091)
© 2017 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Neural Oscillations and a Nascent Corticohippocampal Theory of Reference
Article PDF (1.15 MB)

The ability to use words to refer to the world is vital to the communicative power of human language. In particular, the anaphoric use of words to refer to previously mentioned concepts (antecedents) allows dialogue to be coherent and meaningful. Psycholinguistic theory posits that anaphor comprehension involves reactivating a memory representation of the antecedent. Whereas this implies the involvement of recognition memory or the mnemonic subroutines by which people distinguish old from new, the neural processes for reference resolution are largely unknown. Here, we report time–frequency analysis of four EEG experiments to reveal the increased coupling of functional neural systems associated with referentially coherent expressions compared with referentially problematic expressions. Despite varying in modality, language, and type of referential expression, all experiments showed larger gamma-band power for referentially coherent expressions compared with referentially problematic expressions. Beamformer analysis in high-density Experiment 4 localized the gamma-band increase to posterior parietal cortex around 400–600 msec after anaphor onset and to frontotemporal cortex around 500–1000 msec. We argue that the observed gamma-band power increases reflect successful referential binding and resolution, which links incoming information to antecedents through an interaction between the brain's recognition memory networks and frontotemporal language network. We integrate these findings with previous results from patient and neuroimaging studies, and we outline a nascent corticohippocampal theory of reference.