Part of Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 33 (NeurIPS 2020)
Mariya Toneva, Otilia Stretcu, Barnabas Poczos, Leila Wehbe, Tom M. Mitchell
How meaning is represented in the brain is still one of the big open questions in neuroscience. Does a word (e.g., bird) always have the same representation, or does the task under which the word is processed alter its representation (answering
can you eat it?" versuscan it fly?")? The brain activity of subjects who read the same word while performing different semantic tasks has been shown to differ across tasks. However, it is still not understood how the task itself contributes to this difference. In the current work, we study Magnetoencephalography (MEG) brain recordings of participants tasked with answering questions about concrete nouns. We investigate the effect of the task (i.e. the question being asked) on the processing of the concrete noun by predicting the millisecond-resolution MEG recordings as a function of both the semantics of the noun and the task. Using this approach, we test several hypotheses about the task-stimulus interactions by comparing the zero-shot predictions made by these hypotheses for novel tasks and nouns not seen during training. We find that incorporating the task semantics significantly improves the prediction of MEG recordings, across participants. The improvement occurs 475-550ms after the participants first see the word, which corresponds to what is considered to be the ending time of semantic processing for a word. These results suggest that only the end of semantic processing of a word is task-dependent, and pose a challenge for future research to formulate new hypotheses for earlier task effects as a function of the task and stimuli.