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.
When a word is preceded by a supportive context such as a semantically associated word or a strongly constraining sentence frame, the N400 component of the ERP is reduced in amplitude. An ongoing debate is the degree to which this reduction reflects a passive spread of activation across long-term semantic memory representations as opposed to specific predictions about upcoming input. We addressed this question by embedding semantically associated prime-target pairs within an experimental context that encouraged prediction to a greater or lesser degree. The proportion of related items was used to manipulate the predictive validity of the prime for the target while holding semantic association constant. A semantic category probe detection task was used to encourage semantic processing and to preclude the need for a motor response on the trials of interest. A larger N400 reduction to associated targets was observed in the high than the low relatedness proportion condition, consistent with the hypothesis that predictions about upcoming stimuli make a substantial contribution to the N400 effect. We also observed an earlier priming effect (205-240 msec) in the high-proportion condition, which may reflect facilitation because of form-based prediction. In summary, the results suggest that predictability modulates N400 amplitude to a greater degree than the semantic content of the context.
A core property of human semantic processing is the rapid, facilitatory influence of prior input on extracting the meaning of what comes next, even under conditions of minimal awareness. Previous work has shown a number of neurophysiological indices of this facilitation, but the mapping between time course and localization-critical for separating automatic semantic facilitation from other mechanisms-has thus far been unclear. In the current study, we used a multimodal imaging approach to isolate early, bottom-up effects of context on semantic memory, acquiring a combination of electroencephalography (EEG), magnetoencephalography (MEG), and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) measurements in the same individuals with a masked semantic priming paradigm. Across techniques, the results provide a strikingly convergent picture of early automatic semantic facilitation. Event-related potentials demonstrated early sensitivity to semantic association between 300 and 500 ms; MEG localized the differential neural response within this time window to the left anterior temporal cortex, and fMRI localized the effect more precisely to the left anterior superior temporal gyrus, a region previously implicated in semantic associative processing. However, fMRI diverged from early EEG/MEG measures in revealing semantic enhancement effects within frontal and parietal regions, perhaps reflecting downstream attempts to consciously access the semantic features of the masked prime. Together, these results provide strong evidence that automatic associative semantic facilitation is realized as reduced activity within the left anterior superior temporal cortex between 300 and 500 ms after a word is presented, and emphasize the importance of multimodal neuroimaging approaches in distinguishing the contributions of multiple regions to semantic processing.