Speech prosody, the variation in sentence melody and rhythm, plays a crucial role in sentence comprehension. Specifically, changes in intonational pitch along a sentence can affect our understanding of who did what to whom. To date, it remains unclear how the brain processes this particular use of intonation and which brain regions are involved. In particular, one central matter of debate concerns the lateralisation of intonation processing. To study the role of intonation in sentence comprehension, we designed a functional magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) experiment in which participants listened to spoken sentences. Critically, the interpretation of these sentences depended on either intonational or grammatical cues. Our results showed stronger functional activity in the left inferior frontal gyrus (IFG) when the intonational cue was crucial for sentence comprehension compared to when it was not. When instead a grammatical cue was crucial for sentence comprehension, we found involvement of an overlapping region in the left IFG, as well as in a posterior temporal region. A further analysis revealed that the lateralisation of intonation processing depends on its role in syntactic processing: activity in the IFG was lateralised to the left hemisphere when intonation was the only source of information to comprehend the sentence. In contrast, activity in the IFG was right-lateralised when intonation did not contribute to sentence comprehension. Together, these results emphasise the key role of the left IFG in sentence comprehension, showing the importance of this region when intonation establishes sentence structure. Furthermore, our results provide evidence for the theory that the lateralisation of prosodic processing is modulated by its linguistic role.
Research Areas and Centers
- Academic Focus: Center for Brain, Behavior and Metabolism (CBBM)