Context modulates hemispheric asymmetries in the resolution of lexical ambiguity

Yuval Harpaz, Michal Lavidor

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1 Scopus citations


Previous studies have reported a hemispheric asymmetry in processing dominant (e.g., paper) and subordinate (e.g., farmer) associations of ambiguous words (e.g., pen). The majority of these studies, however, applied randomly ordered presentation and collected right-hand responses only. Generating responses solely with the right hand and the randomly ordered presentation of association type might have affected natural hemispheric expertise. We explored the putative relationships between responding hand and experimental design manipulations in processing lexical ambiguity. Ambiguous target words were laterally presented following word pairs that could be associated to the dominant or subordinate meaning of the target word. We manipulated the responding hand and the experimental context by presenting the semantic associations in a random (Experiment 1) and a blocked ordered presentation (Experiment 2). The results of Experiment 2 supported the right hemisphere expertise hypothesis, whereas the results of Experiment 1 can be best explained by the direct access model where stimuli are processed by the hemisphere receiving them first, without relying on hemispheric expertise. We conclude that without manipulating the responding hand, there is a risk of misinterpreting direct access results as evidence for hemispheric expertise. Moreover, we suggest that a blocked ordered presentation might encourage participants to use the expert hemisphere for the blocked factor. A new theoretical framework is presented to explain the findings.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)428-440
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Cognitive Psychology
Issue number4
StatePublished - 1 Jun 2012

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Correspondence should be addressed to Michal Lavidor, Department of Psychology, Bar Ilan University, Ramat Gan 52900, Israel. E-mail: This study was supported by an ERC start-up grant awarded to ML.


  • Ambiguous words
  • Dominant meaning
  • Hemispheric differences
  • Subordinate meaning
  • semantic decision


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