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Abstract: A longstanding debate regarding the representation of semantic knowledge is whether such knowledge is represented in a single, amodal system or whether it is organized into multiple subsystems based on modality of input or type of information. The current paper presents a distributed connectionist model of semantics that constitutes a middle ground between these unitary- versus multiple-semantics accounts. In the model, semantic representations develop under the pressure of learning to mediate between multiple input and output modalities in performing various tasks. The system has a topographic bias on learning that favors short connections, leading to a graded degree of modality-specific functional specialization within semantics. The model is applied to the specific empirical phenomena of optic aphasia---a neuropsychological disorder in which patients exhibit a selective deficit in naming visually presented objects that is not attributable to more generalized impairments in object recognition (visual agnosia) or naming (anomia). As a result of the topographic bias in the model, as well as the relative degrees of systematicity among tasks, damage to connections from vision to regions of semantics near phonology impairs visual object naming far more than visual gesturing or tactile naming, as observed in optic aphasia. Moreover, as in optic aphasia, the system is better at generating the name of an action associated with an object than at generating the name of the object itself, because action naming receives interactive support from the activation of action representations. The ability of the model to account for the pattern of performance observed in optic aphasia across the full range of severity of impairment provides support for the claim that semantic representations exhibit graded functional specialization rather than being entirely amodal or modality-specific.
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