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Context-dependent semantic processing in the human brain: Evidence from idiom comprehension

Rommers, J., Dijkstra, T., & Bastiaansen, M. C. M. (2013). Context-dependent semantic processing in the human brain: Evidence from idiom comprehension. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 25(5), 762-776. doi:10.1162/jocn_a_00337.
Language comprehension involves activating word meanings and integrating them with the sentence context. This study examined whether these routines are carried out even when they are theoretically unnecessary, namely in the case of opaque idiomatic expressions, for which the literal word meanings are unrelated to the overall meaning of the expression. Predictable words in sentences were replaced by a semantically related or unrelated word. In literal sentences, this yielded previously established behavioral and electrophysiological signatures of semantic processing: semantic facilitation in lexical decision, a reduced N400 for semantically related relative to unrelated words, and a power increase in the gamma frequency band that was disrupted by semantic violations. However, the same manipulations in idioms yielded none of these effects. Instead, semantic violations elicited a late positivity in idioms. Moreover, gamma band power was lower in correct idioms than in correct literal sentences. It is argued that the brain's semantic expectancy and literal word meaning integration operations can, to some extent, be “switched off” when the context renders them unnecessary. Furthermore, the results lend support to models of idiom comprehension that involve unitary idiom representations.
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