Swaab, T., Brown, C. M., & Hagoort, P. (2003). Understanding words in sentence contexts: The time course of ambiguity resolution. Brain and Language,86(2), 326-343. doi:10.1016/S0093-934X(02)00547-3.
Spoken language comprehension requires rapid integration of information from multiple linguistic sources. In the present study we addressed the temporal aspects of this integration process by focusing on the time course of the selection of the appropriate meaning of lexical ambiguities (“bank”) in sentence contexts. Successful selection of the contextually appropriate meaning of the ambiguous word is dependent upon the rapid binding of the contextual information in the sentence to the appropriate meaning of the ambiguity. We used the N400 to identify the time course of this binding process. The N400 was measured to target words that followed three types of context sentences. In the concordant context, the sentence biased the meaning of the sentence-final ambiguous word so that it was related to the target. In the discordant context, the sentence context biased the meaning so that it was not related to the target. In the unrelated control condition, the sentences ended in an unambiguous noun that was unrelated to the target. Half of the concordant sentences biased the dominant meaning, and the other half biased the subordinate meaning of the sentence-final ambiguous words. The ISI between onset of the target word and offset of the sentence-final word of the context sentence was 100 ms in one version of the experiment, and 1250 ms in the second version. We found that (i) the lexically dominant meaning is always partly activated, independent of context, (ii) initially both dominant and subordinate meaning are (partly) activated, which suggests that contextual and lexical factors both contribute to sentence interpretation without context completely overriding lexical information, and (iii) strong lexical influences remain present for a relatively long period of time.