When and how do listeners relate a sentence to the wider discourse? Evidence from the N400 effect
SourceCognitive Brain Research, 17, 3, (2003), pp. 701-718
Article / Letter to editor
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Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging
SW OZ DCC CO
F.C. Donders Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging
SW OZ NICI CO
Cognitive Brain Research
In two ERP experiments, we assessed the impact of discourse-level information on the processing of an unfolding spoken sentence. Subjects listened to sentences like Jane told her brother that he was exceptionally quick/slow, designed such that the alternative critical words were equally acceptable within the local sentence context. In Experiment 1, these sentences were embedded in a discourse that rendered one of the critical words anomalous (e.g. because Jane's brother had in fact done something very quickly). Relative to the coherent alternative, these discourse-anomalous words elicited a standard N400 effect that started at 150-200 ms after acoustic word onset. Furthermore, when the same sentences were heard in isolation in Experiment 2, the N400 effect disappeared. The results demonstrate that our listeners related the unfolding spoken words to the wider discourse extremely rapidly, after having heard the first two or three phonemes only. and in many cases well before the end of the word. In addition, the identical nature of discourse- and sentence-dependent N400 effects suggests that from the perspective of the word-elicited comprehension process indexed by the N400, the interpretive context delineated by a single unfolding sentence and a larger discourse is functionally identical.
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