Does normal processing provide evidence of specialised semantic subsystems?

Laura R. Shapiro*, Andrew C. Olson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Category-specific disorders are frequently explained by suggesting that living and non-living things are processed in separate subsystems (e.g. Caramazza & Shelton, 1998). If subsystems exist, there should be benefits for normal processing, beyond the influence of structural similarity. However, no previous study has separated the relative influences of similarity and semantic category. We created novel examples of living and non-living things so category and similarity could be manipulated independently. Pre-tests ensured that our images evoked appropriate semantic information and were matched for familiarity. Participants were trained to associate names with the images and then performed a name-verification task under two levels of time pressure. We found no significant advantage for living things alongside strong effects of similarity. Our results suggest that similarity rather than category is the key determinant of speed and accuracy in normal semantic processing. We discuss the implications of this finding for neuropsychological studies. © 2005 Psychology Press Ltd.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)697-724
Number of pages28
JournalLanguage and Cognitive Processes
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2005

Bibliographical note

This is an electronic version of an article published in Shapiro, Laura R. and Olson, Andrew C. (2005) Does normal processing provide evidence of specialised semantic subsystems? Language and Cognitive Processes, 20 (6). pp. 697-724. ISSN 0169-0965. Language and Cognitive Processes is available online at:


  • category-specific disorders
  • subsystems exist
  • normal processing
  • structural similarity
  • relative influences
  • similarity
  • semantic category


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