Despite decades of research, it remains controversial whether semantic knowledge is anatomically segregated in the human brain. To address this question, we recorded event-related potentials (ERPs) while participants viewed pictures of animals and tools. Within the 200-600-ms epoch after stimulus presentation, animals (relative to tools) elicited an increased anterior negativity that, based on previous ERP studies, we interpret as associated with semantic processing of visual object attributes. In contrast, tools (relative to animals) evoked an enhanced posterior left-lateralized negativity that, according to prior research, might reflect accessing knowledge of characteristic motion and/or more general functional properties of objects. These results support the hypothesis of the neuroanatomical knowledge organization at the level of object features: the observed neurophysiological activity was modulated by the features that were most salient for object recognition. The high temporal resolution of ERPs allowed us to demonstrate that differences in processing animals and tools occurred specifically within the time-window encompassing semantic analysis.
An impairment in the build-up and use of context has been proposed as a core feature of schizophrenia. The current study tested the hypothesis that schizophrenia patients show impairments in building up context within sentences because of abnormalities in combining semantic with syntactic information. Schizophrenia patients and healthy controls read and made acceptability judgments about sentences containing verbs that were semantically associated with individual preceding words but that violated either the meaning (animacy/semantic constraints) or the syntactic structure (morphosyntactic constraints) of their preceding contexts. To override these semantic associations and determine that such sentences are unacceptable, participants must integrate semantic with syntactic information. These sentences were compared with congruous and pragmatically/semantically violated sentences that imposed fewer semantic-syntactic integration demands. At sentence-final words and decisions, patients showed smaller reaction time differences than controls to animacy/semantically violated or morphosyntactically violated sentences relative to pragmatically/semantically violated or nonviolated sentences. The relative insensitivity to these violations in patients with schizophrenia may arise from impairments in combining semantic and syntactic information to build up sentence context.
In two experiments, direct and indirect semantic priming were measured using event-related potentials. In Experiment 1, participants rated the relatedness between prime and target on a seven-point scale. In Experiment 2, participants simply read the primes and targets as they monitored for a semantic category in probe filler items. Significant direct and indirect N400 priming effects were observed in both experiments. In Experiment 1, the indirect N400 priming effect remained significant when indirectly related and unrelated word pairs were matched for participants' explicit relatedness judgments. In both experiments, the indirect N400 priming effects were preserved when indirectly related and unrelated word pairs were matched on more global and objective measures of semantic similarity. These findings are discussed in the context of current theoretical models of semantic memory and semantic priming.
To build up coherence between sentences (comprehend discourse), we must draw inferences, i.e. activate and integrate information that is not actually stated. We used event-related fMRI to determine the localization and extent of brain activity mediating causal inferencing across short, three-sentence scenarios. Participants read and made causal coherence judgments to sentences that were highly causally related, intermediately related or unrelated to their preceding two-sentence contexts. The highly related and intermediately related scenarios were matched in terms of semantic similarities between their individual component words. A pre-rating study established that causal inferences were generated to the intermediately related but not to the highly related or unrelated scenarios. In the scanner, sentences that were intermediately related (relative to highly related or unrelated) to their preceding contexts were associated with longer judgment reaction times and sustained increases in hemodynamic activity within left lateral temporal/inferior parietal/prefrontal cortices, the right inferior prefrontal gyrus and bilateral superior medial prefrontal cortices. In contrast, sentences that were unrelated (relative to highly related) to their preceding contexts were associated with only transient increases in activity (at, but not after, the peak of the hemodynamic response) within the right lateral temporal cortex and the right inferior prefrontal gyrus. These data suggest that, to make sense of discourse, we activate a large bilateral cortical network in response to what is not explicitly stated. We suggest that this network reflects the activation, retrieval and integration of information from long-term semantic memory into incoming discourse structure during causal inferencing.
Event-related potentials to critical verbs were measured as patients with schizophrenia and healthy controls read sentences word by word. Relative to their preceding context, critical verbs were (a) congruous, (b) incongruous and semantically unrelated to individual preceding words (pragmatic-semantic violations), (c) incongruous but semantically related to individual preceding words (animacy-semantic violations), or (d) syntactically anomalous. The N400 was modulated normally in patients, suggesting that semantic integration between individual words within sentences was normal in schizophrenia. The amplitude of the P600 to both syntactic and animacy-semantic violations was reduced in patients relative to controls. The authors suggest that, in schizophrenia, an abnormality in combining semantic and syntactic information online to build up propositional meaning leaves sentence processing to be primarily driven by semantic relationships between individual words.