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Word frequency effects in naturalistic reading


Word frequency is a central psycholinguistic variable that accounts for substantial variance in language processing. A number of neuroimaging studies have examined frequency at a single word level, typically demonstrating a strong negative, and sometimes positive correlation between frequency and hemodynamic response. Here, 40 subjects read passages of text in an MRI scanner while their eye movements were recorded. We used fixation-related analysis to identify neural activity tied to the frequency of each fixated word. We found that negative correlations with frequency were reduced, while strong positive correlations were found in the temporal and parietal areas associated with semantics. We propose that the processing cost of low frequency words is reduced due to contextual cues. Meanings of high frequency words are more readily accessed and integrated with context resulting in enhanced processing in the semantic system. The results demonstrate similarities and differences between single word and naturalistic text processing.

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