To make sense of the world around us, we must be able to segment a continual stream of sensory inputs into discrete events. In this review, I propose that in order to comprehend events, we engage hierarchical generative models that “reverse engineer” the intentions of other agents as they produce sequential action in real time. By generating probabilistic predictions for upcoming events, generative models ensure that we are able to keep up with the rapid pace at which perceptual inputs unfold. By tracking our certainty about other agents' goals and the magnitude of prediction errors at multiple temporal scales, generative models enable us to detect event boundaries by inferring when a goal has changed. Moreover, by adapting flexibly to the broader dynamics of the environment and our own comprehension goals, generative models allow us to optimally allocate limited resources. Finally, I argue that we use generative models not only to comprehend events but also to produce events (carry out goal-relevant sequential action) and to continually learn about new events from our surroundings. Taken together, this hierarchical generative framework provides new insights into how the human brain processes events so effortlessly while highlighting the fundamental links between event comprehension, production, and learning.
A large literature in social neuroscience has associated the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) with the processing of self-related information. However, only recently have social neuroscience studies begun to consider the large behavioral literature showing a strong self-positivity bias, and these studies have mostly focused on its correlates during self-related judgments and decision making. We carried out a functional MRI (fMRI) study to ask whether the mPFC would show effects of the self-positivity bias in a paradigm that probed participants’ self-concept without any requirement of explicit self-judgment. We presented social vignettes that were either self-relevant or non-self-relevant with a neutral, positive, or negative outcome described in the second sentence. In previous work using event-related potentials, this paradigm has shown evidence of a self-positivity bias that influences early stages of semantically processing incoming stimuli. In the present fMRI study, we found evidence for this bias within the mPFC: an interaction between self-relevance and valence, with only positive scenarios showing a self vs other effect within the mPFC. We suggest that the mPFC may play a role in maintaining a positively-biased self-concept and discuss the implications of these findings for the social neuroscience of the self and the role of the mPFC.
We used Magnetoencephalography (MEG) in combination with Representational Similarity Analysis to probe neural activity associated with distinct, item-specific lexico-semantic predictions during language comprehension. MEG activity was measured as participants read highly constraining sentences in which the final words could be predicted. Before the onset of the predicted words, both the spatial and temporal patterns of brain activity were more similar when the same words were predicted than when different words were predicted. The temporal patterns localized to the left inferior and medial temporal lobe. These findings provide evidence that unique spatial and temporal patterns of neural activity are associated with item-specific lexico-semantic predictions. We suggest that the unique spatial patterns reflected the prediction of spatially distributed semantic features associated with the predicted word, and that the left inferior/medial temporal lobe played a role in temporally “binding” these features, giving rise to unique lexico-semantic predictions.
Background: Schizophrenia is characterized by abnormalities in referential communication, which may be linked to more general deficits in proactive cognitive control. We used event-related potentials (ERPs) to probe the timing and nature of the neural mechanisms engaged as people with schizophrenia linked pronouns to their preceding referents during word-by-word sentence comprehension.
Methods: We measured ERPs to pronouns in two-clause sentences from 16 people with schizophrenia and 20 demographically-matched control participants. Our design crossed the number of potential referents (1-referent, 2-referent) with whether the pronoun matched the gender of its preceding referent(s) (matching, mismatching). This gave rise to four conditions: (1) 1-referent matching (“…Edward took courses in accounting but he…”), (2) 2-referent matching (“…Edward and Phillip took courses but he…”), (3) 1-referent mismatching (“…Edward took courses in accounting but she…”), and (4) 2-referent mismatching (“…Edward and Phillip took courses but she…”).
Results: Consistent with previous findings, healthy controls produced a larger left anteriorly-distributed negativity between 400-600ms to 2-referent matching than to 1-referent matching pronouns (the “Nref effect”). In contrast, people with schizophrenia produced a larger centro-posterior positivity effect between 600-800ms. Both patient and control groups produced a larger positivity between 400-800ms to mismatching than to matching pronouns.
Conclusions: These findings suggest that proactive mechanisms of referential processing, reflected by the Nref effect, are impaired in schizophrenia, while reactive mechanisms, reflected by the positivity effects, are relatively spared. Indeed, patients may compensate for proactive deficits by retro-actively engaging with context to influence the processing of inputs at a later stage of analysis.
Since the early 2000s, several ERP studies have challenged the assumption that we always use syntactic contextual information to influence semantic processing of incoming words, as reflected by the N400 component. One approach for explaining these findings is to posit distinct semantic and syntactic processing mechanisms, each with distinct time courses. While this approach can explain specific datasets, it cannot account for the wider body of findings. I propose an alternative explanation: a dynamic generative framework in which our goal is to infer the underlying event that best explains the set of inputs encountered at any given time. Within this framework, combinations of semantic and syntactic cues with varying reliabilities are used as evidence to weight probabilistic hypotheses about this event. I further argue that the computational principles of this framework can be extended to understand how we infer situation models during discourse comprehension, and intended messages during spoken communication.
In two event-related potential experiments, we asked whether comprehenders used the concessive connective, even so, to predict upcoming events. Participants read coherent and incoherent scenarios, with and without even so, e.g. ‘Elizabeth had a history exam on Monday. She took the test and aced/failed it. (Even so), she went home and celebrated wildly’, as they rated coherence (Experiment 1) or simply answered intermittent comprehension questions (Experiment 2). The semantic function of even so was used to reverse real-world knowledge predictions, leading to an attenuated N400 to coherent versus incoherent target words (‘celebrated’). Moreover, its pragmatic communicative function enhanced predictive processing, leading to more N400 attenuation to coherent targets in scenarios with than without even so. This benefit however, did not come for free: the detection of failed event predictions triggered a later posterior positivity and/or an anterior negativity effect, and
A large body of social psychological research suggests that we think quite positively of ourselves, often unrealistically so. Research on this 'self-positivity bias' has relied mainly on self-report and behavioral measures, but these can suffer from a number of problems including confounds that arise from the desire to present oneself well. What has not been clearly assessed is whether the self-positivity bias influences the processing of incoming information as it unfolds in real time. In this study, we used event-related potentials to address this question. Participants read two-sentence social vignettes that were either self- or other-relevant. Pleasant words in self-relevant contexts evoked a smaller negativity between 300 and 500 ms (the N400 time window) than the same words in other-relevant contexts, suggesting that comprehenders were more likely to expect positive information when a scenario referred to themselves. This finding indicates that the self-positivity bias is available online, acting as a general schema that directly influences real-time comprehension.
We used event-related potentials (ERPs) to examine the interactions between task, emotion, and contextual self-relevance on processing words in social vignettes. Participants read scenarios that were in either third person (other-relevant) or second person (self-relevant) and we recorded ERPs to a neutral, pleasant, or unpleasant critical word. In a previously reported study (Fields and Kuperberg, 2012) with these stimuli, participants were tasked with producing a third sentence continuing the scenario. We observed a larger LPC to emotional words than neutral words in both the self-relevant and other-relevant scenarios, but this effect was smaller in the self-relevant scenarios because the LPC was larger on the neutral words (i.e., a larger LPC to self-relevant than other-relevant neutral words). In the present work, participants simply answered comprehension questions that did not refer to the emotional aspects of the scenario. Here we observed quite a different pattern of interaction between self-relevance and emotion: the LPC was larger to emotional vs. neutral words in the self-relevant scenarios only, and there was no effect of self-relevance on neutral words. Taken together, these findings suggest that the LPC reflects a dynamic interaction between specific task demands, the emotional properties of a stimulus, and contextual self-relevance. We conclude by discussing implications and future directions for a functional theory of the emotional LPC.
We used event-related potentials (ERPs) to investigate the neurocognitive mechanisms associated with processing light verb constructions such as “give a kiss”. These constructions consist of a semantically underspecified light verb (“give”) and an event nominal that contributes most of the meaning and also activates an argument structure of its own (“kiss”). This creates a mismatch between the syntactic constituents and the semantic roles of a sentence. Native speakers read German verb-final sentences that contained light verb constructions (e.g., “Julius gave Anne a kiss”), non-light constructions (e.g., “Julius gave Anne a rose”), and semantically anomalous constructions (e.g., *“Julius gave Anne a conversation”). ERPs were measured at the critical verb, which appeared after all its arguments. Compared to non-light constructions, the light verb constructions evoked a widely distributed, frontally focused, sustained negative-going effect between 500 and 900 ms after verb onset. We interpret this effect as reflecting working memory costs associated with complex semantic processes that establish a shared argument structure in the light verb constructions.
The verb “pounce” describes a single, near-instantaneous event. Yet, we easily understand that, “For several minutes the cat pounced…” describes a situation in which multiple pounces occurred, although this interpretation is not overtly specified by the sentenceʼs syntactic structure or by any of its individual words—a phenomenon known as “aspectual coercion.” Previous psycholinguistic studies have reported processing costs in association with aspectual coercion, but the neurocognitive mechanisms giving rise to these costs remain contentious. Additionally, there is some controversy about whether readers commit to a full interpretation of the event when the aspectual information becomes available, or whether they leave it temporarily underspecified until later in the sentence. Using ERPs, we addressed these questions in a design that fully crossed context type (punctive, durative, frequentative) with verb type (punctive, durative). We found a late, sustained negativity to punctive verbs in durative contexts, but not in frequentative (e.g., explicitly iterative) contexts. This effect was distinct from the N400 in both its time course and scalp distribution, suggesting that it reflected a different underlying neurocognitive mechanism. We also found that ERPs to durative verbs were unaffected by context type. Together, our results provide strong evidence that neural activity associated with aspectual coercion is driven by the engagement of a morphosyntactically unrealized semantic operator rather than by violations of real-world knowledge, more general shifts in event representation, or event iterativity itself. More generally, our results add to a growing body of evidence that a set of late-onset sustained negativities reflect elaborative semantic processing that goes beyond simply combining the meaning of individual words with syntactic structure to arrive at a final representation of meaning.
Constituent structure has long been established as a central feature of human language. Analogous to how syntax organizes words in sentences, a narrative grammar organizes sequential images into hierarchic constituents. Here we show that the brain draws upon this constituent structure to comprehend wordless visual narratives. We recorded neural responses as participants viewed sequences of visual images (comics strips) in which blank images either disrupted individual narrative constituents or fell at natural constituent boundaries. A disruption of either the first or the second narrative constituent produced a left-lateralized anterior negativity effect between 500 and 700ms. Disruption of the second constituent also elicited a posteriorly-distributed positivity (P600) effect. These neural responses are similar to those associated with structural violations in language and music. These findings provide evidence that comprehenders use a narrative structure to comprehend visual sequences and that the brain engages similar neurocognitive mechanisms to build structure across multiple domains.
Words that are semantically congruous with their preceding discourse context are easier to process than words that are semantically incongruous with their context. This facilitation of semantic processing is reflected by an attenuation of the N400 event-related potential (ERP). We asked whether this was true of emotional words in emotional contexts where discourse congruity was conferred through emotional valence. ERPs were measured as 24 participants read twosentence scenarios with critical words that varied by emotion (pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral) and congruity (congruous or incongruous). Semantic predictability, constraint, and plausibility were comparable across the neutral and emotional scenarios. As expected, the N400 was smaller to neutral words that were semantically congruous (vs. incongruous) with their neutral discourse context. No such N400 congruity effect was observed on emotional words following emotional discourse contexts. Rather, the amplitude of the N400 was small to all emotional words (pleasant and unpleasant), regardless of whether their emotional valence was congruous with the valence of their emotional discourse context. However, consistent with previous studies, the emotional words produced a larger late positivity than did the neutral words. These data suggest that comprehenders bypassed deep semantic processing of valence-incongruous emotional words within the N400 time window, moving rapidly on to evaluate the words’ motivational significance.
Accurately communicating self-relevant and emotional information is a vital function of language, but we have little idea about how these factors impact normal discourse comprehension. In an event-related potential (ERP) study, we fully crossed self-relevance and emotion in a discourse context. Two-sentence social vignettes were presented either in the third or the second person (previous work has shown that this influences the perspective from which mental models are built). ERPs were time-locked to a critical word toward the end of the second sentence which was pleasant, neutral, or unpleasant (e.g., A man knocks on Sandra's/your hotel room door. She/You see(s) that he has agift/tray/gunin his hand.). We saw modulation of early components (P1, N1, and P2) by self-relevance, suggesting that a self-relevant context can lead to top-down attentional effects during early stages of visual processing. Unpleasant words evoked a larger late positivity than pleasant words, which evoked a larger positivity than neutral words, indicating that, regardless of self-relevance, emotional words are assessed as motivationally significant, triggering additional or deeper processing at post-lexical stages. Finally, self-relevance and emotion interacted on the late positivity: a larger late positivity was evoked by neutral words in self-relevant, but not in non-self-relevant, contexts. This may reflect prolonged attempts to disambiguate the emotional valence of ambiguous stimuli that are relevant to the self. More broadly, our findings suggest that the assessment of emotion and self-relevance are not independent, but rather that they interactively influence one another during word-by-word language comprehension.
We aimed to determine whether semantic relatedness between an incoming word and its preceding context can override expectations based on two types of stored knowledge: real-world knowledge about the specific events and states conveyed by a verb, and the verb's broader selection restrictions on the animacy of its argument. We recorded event-related potentials on post-verbal Agent arguments as participants read and made plausibility judgments about passive English sentences. The N400 evoked by incoming animate Agent arguments that violated expectations based on real-world event/state knowledge, was strongly attenuated when they were semantically related to the context. In contrast, semantic relatedness did not modulate the N400 evoked by inanimate Agent arguments that violated the preceding verb's animacy selection restrictions. These findings suggest that, under these task and experimental conditions, semantic relatedness can facilitate processing of post-verbal animate arguments that violate specific expectations based on real-world event/state knowledge, but only when the semantic features of these arguments match the coarser-grained animacy restrictions of the verb. Animacy selection restriction violations also evoked a P600 effect, which was not modulated by semantic relatedness, suggesting that it was triggered by propositional impossibility. Together, these data indicate that the brain distinguishes between real-world event/state knowledge and animacy-based selection restrictions during online processing.
Just as syntax differentiates coherent sentences from scrambled word strings, the comprehension of sequential images must also use a cognitive system to distinguish coherent narrative sequences from random strings of images. We conducted experiments analogous to two classic studies of language processing to examine the contributions of narrative structure and semantic relatedness to processing sequential images. We compared four types of comic strips: (1) Normal sequences with both structure and meaning, (2) Semantic Only sequences (in which the panels were related to a common semantic theme, but had no narrative structure), (3) Structural Only sequences (narrative structure but no semantic relatedness), and (4) Scrambled sequences of randomly-ordered panels. In Experiment 1, participants monitored for target panels in sequences presented panel-by-panel. Reaction times were slowest to panels in Scrambled sequences, intermediate in both Structural Only and Semantic Only sequences, and fastest in Normal sequences. This suggests that both semantic relatedness and narrative structure offer advantages to processing. Experiment 2 measured ERPs to all panels across the whole sequence. The N300/N400 was largest to panels in both the Scrambled and Structural Only sequences, intermediate in Semantic Only sequences and smallest in the Normal sequences. This implies that a combination of narrative structure and semantic relatedness can facilitate semantic processing of upcoming panels (as reflected by the N300/N400). Also, panels in the Scrambled sequences evoked a larger left-lateralized anterior negativity than panels in the Structural Only sequences. This localized effect was distinct from the N300/N400, and appeared despite the fact that these two sequence types were matched on local semantic relatedness between individual panels. These findings suggest that sequential image comprehension uses a narrative structure that may be independent of semantic relatedness. Altogether, we argue that the comprehension of visual narrative is guided by an interaction between structure and meaning.
Schizophrenia is associated with abnormalities in emotional processing and social cognition. However, it remains unclear whether patients show abnormal neurophysiological responses during fast, online appraisals of the emotional meaning of social information. To examine this question, event-related potentials (ERPs) were collected while 18 schizophrenia patients and 18 demographically matched controls evaluated 2-sentence vignettes describing negative, positive, or neutral social situations. ERPs were time locked to a critical word (CW) in the second sentence that conferred emotional valence. A late positivity effect to emotional (vs neutral) CWs was seen in both groups (in controls, to negative and positive CWs; in patients, to negative CWs only). However, the controls showed a greater late positivity effect to the negative and positive (vs neutral) CWs than the schizophrenia patients at mid-posterior (negative vs neutral) and at right posterior peripheral (positive vs neutral) sites. These between-group differences arose from reduced amplitudes of the late positivity to the negative and positive CWs in the patients relative to the controls; there was no difference between the 2 groups in the amplitude of the late positivity to the neutral CWs. These findings suggest that schizophrenia is associated with a specific neural deficit during the online evaluation of emotionally valent, socially relevant information.
A cardinal feature of schizophrenia is the poor comprehension, or misinterpretation, of the emotional meaning of social interactions and events, which can sometimes take the form of a persecutory delusion. It has been shown that the comprehension of the emotional meaning of the social world involves a midline paralimbic cortical network. However, the function of this network during emotional appraisals in patients with schizophrenia is not well understood. In this study, hemodynamic responses were measured in 14 patients with schizophrenia and 18 healthy subjects during the evaluation of descriptions of social situations with negative, positive, and neutral affective valence. The healthy and schizophrenia groups displayed opposite patterns of responses to emotional and neutral social situations within the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortices--healthy participants showed greater activity to the emotional compared to the neutral situations, while patients exhibited greater responses to the neutral compared to the emotional situations. Moreover, the magnitude of the response within bilateral cingulate gyri to the neutral social stimuli predicted delusion severity in the patients with schizophrenia. These findings suggest that impaired functioning of cortical midline structures in schizophrenia may underlie faulty interpretations of social events, contributing to delusion formation.
Animacy is known to play an important role in language processing and production, but debate remains as to how it exerts its effects: 1) through links to syntactic ordering, 2) through inherent differences between animate and inanimate entities in their salience/lexico-semantic accessibility, 3) through links to specific thematic roles. We contrasted these three accounts in two event related potential (ERP) experiments examining the processing of direct object arguments in simple English sentences. In Experiment 1, we found a larger N400 to animate than inanimate direct object arguments assigned the Patient role, ruling out the second account. In Experiment 2 we found no difference in the N400 evoked by animate direct object arguments assigned the Patient role (prototypically inanimate) and those assigned the Experiencer role (prototypically animate), ruling out the third account. We therefore suggest that animacy may impact processing through a direct link to syntactic linear ordering, at least on post-verbal arguments in English. We also examined processing on direct object arguments that violated the animacy-based selection restriction constraints of their preceding verbs. These violations evoked a robust P600, which was not modulated by thematic role assignment or reversibility, suggesting that the so-called semantic P600 is driven by overall propositional impossibility, rather than thematic role reanalysis.
This study examined neural activity associated with establishing causal relationships across sentences during on-line comprehension. ERPs were measured while participants read and judged the relatedness of three-sentence scenarios in which the final sentence was highly causally related, intermediately related, and causally unrelated to its context. Lexico-semantic co-occurrence was matched across the three conditions using a Latent Semantic Analysis. Critical words in causally unrelated scenarios evoked a larger N400 than words in both highly causally related and intermediately related scenarios, regardless of whether they appeared before or at the sentence-final position. At midline sites, the N400 to intermediately related sentence-final words was attenuated to the same degree as to highly causally related words, but otherwise the N400 to intermediately related words fell in between that evoked by highly causally related and intermediately related words. No modulation of the late positivity/P600 component was observed across conditions. These results indicate that both simple and complex causal inferences can influence the earliest stages of semantically processing an incoming word. Further, they suggest that causal coherence, at the situation level, can influence incremental word-by-word discourse comprehension, even when semantic relationships between individual words are matched.