Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
When we speak, we constantly retrieve and select words for production in the face of multiple possible alternatives. Our ability to respond in such underdetermined situations is supported by left ventrolateral prefrontal cortical (VLPFC) regions, but there is active debate about whether these regions support (1) selection between competing alternatives, (2) controlled retrieval from semantic memory, or (3) selection and controlled retrieval in distinct subregions of VLPFC (selection in mid-VLPFC and controlled retrieval in anterior VLPFC). Each of these theories has been supported by some prior evidence but challenged by other findings, leaving the debate unresolved. We propose that these discrepancies in the previous literature reflect problems in the way that selection and controlled retrieval processes have been operationalized and measured. Using improved measures, we find that shared neural substrates in left VLPFC support both selection and controlled retrieval, with no dissociation between mid and anterior regions. Moreover, selection and retrieval demands interact in left VLPFC, such that selection effects are greatest when retrieval demands are low, consistent with prior behavioral findings. These findings enable a synthesis and reinterpretation of prior evidence and suggest that the ability to respond in underdetermined situations is affected by both selection and retrieval mechanisms for verbal material subserved by left VLPFC, and these processes interact in meaningful ways.