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Boux, I. P., Pulvermüller, F. Does the right temporo-parietal junction play a role in processing indirect speech acts? A transcranial magnetic stimulation study

News vom 26.05.2023

Boux, I. P., Pulvermüller, F. (2023). Does the right temporo-parietal junction play a role in processing indirect speech acts? A transcranial magnetic stimulation study. Neuropsychologia, 108588. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2023.108588.

Abstract

In communication, much information is conveyed not explicitly but rather covertly, based on shared assumptions and common knowledge. For instance, when asked “Did you bring your cat to the vet?” a person could reply “It got hurt jumping down the table”, thereby implicating that, indeed, the cat was brought to the vet. The assumption that getting hurt jumping down a table motivates a vet visit is tacitly attributed to the speaker by the listener, which might engage Theory of Mind (ToM) processes. In the present study, we apply repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation to the right temporo-parietal junction (rTPJ), a key brain region underlying ToM, with the aim to disrupt ToM processes necessary for language understanding. We then assess effects on the comprehension of indirect speech acts and their matched direct controls. In one set of conditions, the direct and indirect stimuli where not matched for speech act type, whereas, in the others, these were matched, therefore providing an unconfounded test case for in/directness. When indirect speech acts and direct controls were matched for speech act type (both descriptive answers), the indirect took longer to process both following sham and verum TMS. However, when the indirect and direct speech act were not matched for communicative function (accept/decline offer vs. descriptive answer respectively), then a delay was detected for the indirect ones following sham TMS but, crucially, not following verum TMS. Additionally, TMS affected behavior in a ToM task. We therefore do not find evidence that the rTPJ is causally involved in comprehending of indirectness per se, but conclude that it could be involved instead in the processing of specific social communicative activity of rejecting of accepting offers, or to a combination of differing in/directness and communicative function. Our findings are consistent with the view that ToM processing in rTPJ is more important and/or more pronounced for offer acceptance/rejection than for descriptive answers.

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