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Spatial distance effects on incremental semantic interpretation of abstract sentences: Evidence from eye tracking

Guerra, E., & Knoeferle, P. (2014). Spatial distance effects on incremental semantic interpretation of abstract sentences: Evidence from eye tracking. Cognition, 133(3), 535-552. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2014.07.007.
A large body of evidence has shown that visual context information can rapidly modulate language comprehension for concrete sentences and when it is mediated by a referential or a lexical-semantic link. What has not yet been examined is whether visual context can also modulate comprehension of abstract sentences incrementally when it is neither referenced by, nor lexically associated with, the sentence. Three eye-tracking reading experiments examined the effects of spatial distance between words (Experiment 1) and objects (Experiment 2 and 3) on participants’ reading times for sentences that convey similarity or difference between two abstract nouns (e.g., ‘Peace and war are certainly different...’). Before reading the sentence, participants inspected a visual context with two playing cards that moved either far apart or close together. In Experiment 1, the cards turned and showed the first two nouns of the sentence (e.g., ‘peace’, ‘war’). In Experiments 2 and 3, they turned but remained blank. Participants’ reading times at the adjective (Experiment 1: first-pass reading time; Experiment 2: total times) and at the second noun phrase (Experiment 3: first-pass times) were faster for sentences that expressed similarity when the preceding words/objects were close together (vs. far apart) and for sentences that expressed dissimilarity when the preceding words/objects were far apart (vs. close together). Thus, spatial distance between words or entirely unrelated objects can rapidly and incrementally modulate the semantic interpretation of abstract sentences.

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