Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Lexical-semantic investigations in cognitive neuroscience have focused on conceptual knowledge of concrete objects. By contrast, relational concepts have been largely ignored. We examined thematic role and locative knowledge in 14 left-hemisphere-damage patients. Relational concepts shift cognitive focus away from the object to the relationship between objects, calling into question the relevance of traditional sensory-functional accounts of semantics. If extraction of a relational structure is the critical cognitive process common to both thematic and locative knowledge, then damage to neural structures involved in such an extraction would impair both kinds of knowledge. If the nature of the relationship itself is critical, then functional neuroanatomical dissociations should occur. Using a new lesion analysis method, we found that damage to the lateral temporal cortex produced deficits in thematic role knowledge and damage to inferior fronto-parietal regions produced deficits in locative knowledge. In addition, we found that conceptual knowledge of thematic roles dissociates from its mapping onto language. These relational knowledge deficits were not accounted for by deficits in processing nouns or verbs or by a general deficit in making inferences. Our results are consistent with the hypothesis that manners of visual motion serve as a point of entry for thematic role knowledge and networks dedicated to eye gaze, whereas reaching and grasping serve as a point of entry for locative knowledge. Intermediary convergence zones that are topographically guided by these sensory-motor points of entry play a critical role in the semantics of relational concepts.