What's unique about unique entities? An fMRI investigation of the semantics of famous faces and landmarks

Lars A. Ross, Ingrid R. Olson

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Famous people and artifacts are referred to as "unique entities" (UEs) due to the unique nature of the knowledge we have about them. Past imaging and lesion experiments have indicated that the anterior temporal lobes (ATLs) as having a special role in the processing of UEs. It has remained unclear which attributes of UEs were responsible for the observed effects in imaging experiments. In this study, we investigated what factors of UEs influence brain activity. In a training paradigm, we systematically varied the uniqueness of semantic associations, the presence/absence of a proper name, and the number of semantic associations to determine factors modulating activity in regions subserving the processing of UEs. We found that a conjunction of unique semantic information and proper names modulated activity within a section of the left ATL. Overall, the processing of UEs involved a wider left-hemispheric cortical network. Within these regions, brain activity was significantly affected by the unique semantic attributes especially in the presence of a proper name, but we could not find evidence for an effect of the number of semantic associations. Findings are discussed in regard to current models of ATL function, the neurophysiology of semantics, and social cognitive processing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2005-2015
Number of pages11
JournalCerebral Cortex
Issue number9
StatePublished - Sep 2012


  • anterior temporal lobe
  • concepts
  • face perception
  • semantic memory
  • social neuroscience

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Cellular and Molecular Neuroscience


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