Going the extra mile: Effects of discourse context on two late positivities during language comprehension


Brothers, T., Wlotko, E. W., Warnke, L., & Kuperberg, G. R. (2020). Going the extra mile: Effects of discourse context on two late positivities during language comprehension. Neurobiology of Language , 1 (1), 135-160.
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During language comprehension, online neural processing is strongly influenced by the constraints of the prior context. While the N400 ERP response (300-500ms) is known to be sensitive to a word’s semantic predictability, less is known about a set of late positive-going ERP responses (600-1000ms) that can be elicited when an incoming word violates strong predictions about upcoming content (late frontal positivity) or about what is possible given the prior context (late posterior positivity/P600). Across three experiments, we systematically manipulated the length of the prior context and the source of lexical constraint to determine their influence on comprehenders’ online neural responses to these two types of prediction violations. In Experiment 1, within minimal contexts, both lexical prediction violations and semantically anomalous words produced a larger N400 than expected continuations (James unlocked the door/laptop/gardener), but no late positive effects were observed. Critically, the late posterior positivity/P600 to semantic anomalies appeared when these same sentences were embedded within longer discourse contexts (Experiment 2a), and the late frontal positivity appeared to lexical prediction violations when the preceding context was rich and globally constraining (Experiment 2b). We interpret these findings within a hierarchical generative framework of language comprehension. This framework highlights the role of comprehension goals and broader linguistic context, and how these factors influence both top-down prediction and the decision to update or reanalyze the prior context when these predictions are violated.

Last updated on 02/22/2021