Differential neural activity patterns for spatial relations in humans: a MEG study

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Children learn the words for above–below relations earlier than for left–right relations, despite treating these equally well in a simple visual categorization task. Even as adults—conflicts in congruency, such as when a stimulus is depicted in a spatially incongruent manner with respect to salient global cues—can be challenging. Here we investigated the neural correlates of encoding and maintaining in working memory above–below and left–right relational planes in 12 adults using magnetoencephalography in order to discover whether above–below relations are represented by the brain differently than left–right relations. Adults performed perfectly on the task behaviorally, so any differences in neural activity were attributed to the stimuli’s cognitive attributes. In comparing above–below to left–right relations during stimulus encoding, we found the greatest differences in neural activity in areas associated with space and movement. In comparing congruent to incongruent trials, we found the greatest differential activity in premotor areas. For both contrasts, brain areas involved in the encoding phase were also involved in the maintenance phase, which provides evidence that those brain areas are particularly important in representing the relational planes or congruency types throughout the trial. When comparing neural activity associated with the relational planes during working memory, additional right posterior areas were implicated, whereas the congruent-incongruent contrast implicated additional bilateral frontal and temporal areas. These findings are consistent with the hypothesis left–right relations are represented differently than above–below relations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)429-441
Number of pages13
JournalExperimental Brain Research
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 1 2016

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This study was partially supported by a University of Minnesota Interdisciplinary Doctoral Fellowship, a University of Minnesota Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship (both to NMS), NIH training Grant No. T32 HD007151, the US Department of Veterans Affairs, and the McKnight Presidential Cognitive Neuroscience Chair.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015, Springer-Verlag Berlin Heidelberg (outside the USA).


  • Congruency
  • Encoding
  • Left–right confusion
  • MEG
  • Relational plane
  • Working memory


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