Mante Nieuwland

Publications

Displaying 1 - 44 of 44
  • Vega-Mendoza, M., Pickering, M. J., & Nieuwland, M. S. (2021). Concurrent use of animacy and event-knowledge during comprehension: Evidence from event-related potentials. Neuropsychologia, 152: 107724. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2020.107724.

    Abstract

    In two ERP experiments, we investigated whether readers prioritize animacy over real-world event-knowledge during sentence comprehension. We used the paradigm of Paczynski and Kuperberg (2012), who argued that animacy is prioritized based on the observations that the ‘related anomaly effect’ (reduced N400s for context-related anomalous words compared to unrelated words) does not occur for animacy violations, and that animacy violations but not relatedness violations elicit P600 effects. Participants read passive sentences with plausible agents (e.g., The prescription for the mental disorder was written by the psychiatrist) or implausible agents that varied in animacy and semantic relatedness (schizophrenic/guard/pill/fence). In Experiment 1 (with a plausibility judgment task), plausible sentences elicited smaller N400s relative to all types of implausible sentences. Crucially, animate words elicited smaller N400s than inanimate words, and related words elicited smaller N400s than unrelated words, but Bayesian analysis revealed substantial evidence against an interaction between animacy and relatedness. Moreover, at the P600 time-window, we observed more positive ERPs for animate than inanimate words and for related than unrelated words at anterior regions. In Experiment 2 (without judgment task), we observed an N400 effect with animacy violations, but no other effects. Taken together, the results of our experiments fail to support a prioritized role of animacy information over real-world event-knowledge, but they support an interactive, constraint-based view on incremental semantic processing.
  • Coopmans, C. W., & Nieuwland, M. S. (2020). Dissociating activation and integration of discourse referents: Evidence from ERPs and oscillations. Cortex, 126, 83-106. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2019.12.028.

    Abstract

    A key challenge in understanding stories and conversations is the comprehension of ‘anaphora’, words that refer back to previously mentioned words or concepts (‘antecedents’). In psycholinguistic theories, anaphor comprehension involves the initial activation of the antecedent and its subsequent integration into the unfolding representation of the narrated event. A recent proposal suggests that these processes draw upon the brain’s recognition memory and language networks, respectively, and may be dissociable in patterns of neural oscillatory synchronization (Nieuwland & Martin, 2017). We addressed this proposal in an electroencephalogram (EEG) study with pre-registered data acquisition and analyses, using event-related potentials (ERPs) and neural oscillations. Dutch participants read two-sentence mini stories containing proper names, which were repeated or new (ease of activation) and semantically coherent or incoherent with the preceding discourse (ease of integration). Repeated names elicited lower N400 and Late Positive Component amplitude than new names, and also an increase in theta-band (4-7 Hz) synchronization, which was largest around 240-450 ms after name onset. Discourse-coherent names elicited an increase in gamma-band (60-80 Hz) synchronization compared to discourse-incoherent names. This effect was largest around 690-1000 ms after name onset and exploratory beamformer analysis suggested a left frontal source. We argue that the initial activation and subsequent discourse-level integration of referents can be dissociated with event-related EEG activity, and are associated with respectively theta- and gamma-band activity. These findings further establish the link between memory and language through neural oscillations.

    Additional information

    materials, data, and analysis scripts
  • Fleur, D. S., Flecken, M., Rommers, J., & Nieuwland, M. S. (2020). Definitely saw it coming? The dual nature of the pre-nominal prediction effect. Cognition, 204: 104335. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2020.104335.

    Abstract

    In well-known demonstrations of lexical prediction during language comprehension, pre-nominal articles that mismatch a likely upcoming noun's gender elicit different neural activity than matching articles. However, theories differ on what this pre-nominal prediction effect means and on what is being predicted. Does it reflect mismatch with a predicted article, or ‘merely’ revision of the noun prediction? We contrasted the ‘article prediction mismatch’ hypothesis and the ‘noun prediction revision’ hypothesis in two ERP experiments on Dutch mini-story comprehension, with pre-registered data collection and analyses. We capitalized on the Dutch gender system, which marks gender on definite articles (‘de/het’) but not on indefinite articles (‘een’). If articles themselves are predicted, mismatching gender should have little effect when readers expected an indefinite article without gender marking. Participants read contexts that strongly suggested either a definite or indefinite noun phrase as its best continuation, followed by a definite noun phrase with the expected noun or an unexpected, different gender noun phrase (‘het boek/de roman’, the book/the novel). Experiment 1 (N = 48) showed a pre-nominal prediction effect, but evidence for the article prediction mismatch hypothesis was inconclusive. Informed by exploratory analyses and power analyses, direct replication Experiment 2 (N = 80) yielded evidence for article prediction mismatch at a newly pre-registered occipital region-of-interest. However, at frontal and posterior channels, unexpectedly definite articles also elicited a gender-mismatch effect, and this support for the noun prediction revision hypothesis was further strengthened by exploratory analyses: ERPs elicited by gender-mismatching articles correlated with incurred constraint towards a new noun (next-word entropy), and N400s for initially unpredictable nouns decreased when articles made them more predictable. By demonstrating its dual nature, our results reconcile two prevalent explanations of the pre-nominal prediction effect.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., Arkhipova, Y., & Rodríguez-Gómez, P. (2020). Anticipating words during spoken discourse comprehension: A large-scale, pre-registered replication study using brain potentials. Cortex, 133, 1-36. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2020.09.007.

    Abstract

    Numerous studies report brain potential evidence for the anticipation of specific words during language comprehension. In the most convincing demonstrations, highly predictable nouns exert an influence on processing even before they appear to a reader or listener, as indicated by the brain's neural response to a prenominal adjective or article when it mismatches the expectations about the upcoming noun. However, recent studies suggest that some well-known demonstrations of prediction may be hard to replicate. This could signal the use of data-contingent analysis, but might also mean that readers and listeners do not always use prediction-relevant information in the way that psycholinguistic theories typically suggest. To shed light on this issue, we performed a close replication of one of the best-cited ERP studies on word anticipation (Van Berkum, Brown, Zwitserlood, Kooijman & Hagoort, 2005; Experiment 1), in which participants listened to Dutch spoken mini-stories. In the original study, the marking of grammatical gender on pre-nominal adjectives (‘groot/grote’) elicited an early positivity when mismatching the gender of an unseen, highly predictable noun, compared to matching gender. The current pre-registered study involved that same manipulation, but used a novel set of materials twice the size of the original set, an increased sample size (N = 187), and Bayesian mixed-effects model analyses that better accounted for known sources of variance than the original. In our study, mismatching gender elicited more negative voltage than matching gender at posterior electrodes. However, this N400-like effect was small in size and lacked support from Bayes Factors. In contrast, we successfully replicated the original's noun effects. While our results yielded some support for prediction, they do not support the Van Berkum et al. effect and highlight the risks associated with commonly employed data-contingent analyses and small sample sizes. Our results also raise the question whether Dutch listeners reliably or consistently use adjectival inflection information to inform their noun predictions.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., Barr, D. J., Bartolozzi, F., Busch-Moreno, S., Darley, E., Donaldson, D. I., Ferguson, H. J., Fu, X., Heyselaar, E., Huettig, F., Husband, E. M., Ito, A., Kazanina, N., Kogan, V., Kohút, Z., Kulakova, E., Mézière, D., Politzer-Ahles, S., Rousselet, G., Rueschemeyer, S.-A. and 3 moreNieuwland, M. S., Barr, D. J., Bartolozzi, F., Busch-Moreno, S., Darley, E., Donaldson, D. I., Ferguson, H. J., Fu, X., Heyselaar, E., Huettig, F., Husband, E. M., Ito, A., Kazanina, N., Kogan, V., Kohút, Z., Kulakova, E., Mézière, D., Politzer-Ahles, S., Rousselet, G., Rueschemeyer, S.-A., Segaert, K., Tuomainen, J., & Von Grebmer Zu Wolfsthurn, S. (2020). Dissociable effects of prediction and integration during language comprehension: Evidence from a large-scale study using brain potentials. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, Series B: Biological Sciences, 375: 20180522. doi:10.1098/rstb.2018.0522.

    Abstract

    Composing sentence meaning is easier for predictable words than for unpredictable words. Are predictable words genuinely predicted, or simply more plausible and therefore easier to integrate with sentence context? We addressed this persistent and fundamental question using data from a recent, large-scale (N = 334) replication study, by investigating the effects of word predictability and sentence plausibility on the N400, the brain’s electrophysiological index of semantic processing. A spatiotemporally fine-grained mixed-effects multiple regression analysis revealed overlapping effects of predictability and plausibility on the N400, albeit with distinct spatiotemporal profiles. Our results challenge the view that the predictability-dependent N400 reflects the effects of either prediction or integration, and suggest that semantic facilitation of predictable words arises from a cascade of processes that activate and integrate word meaning with context into a sentence-level meaning.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., & Kazanina, N. (2020). The neural basis of linguistic prediction: Introduction to the special issue. Neuropsychologia, 146: 107532. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2020.107532.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., Coopmans, C. W., & Sommers, R. P. (2019). Distinguishing old from new referents during discourse comprehension: Evidence from ERPs and oscillations. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 13: 398. doi:10.3389/fnhum.2019.00398.

    Abstract

    In this EEG study, we used pre-registered and exploratory ERP and time-frequency analyses to investigate the resolution of anaphoric and non-anaphoric noun phrases during discourse comprehension. Participants listened to story contexts that described two antecedents, and subsequently read a target sentence with a critical noun phrase that lexically matched one antecedent (‘old’), matched two antecedents (‘ambiguous’), partially matched one antecedent in terms of semantic features (‘partial-match’), or introduced another referent (non-anaphoric, ‘new’). After each target sentence, participants judged whether the noun referred back to an antecedent (i.e., an ‘old/new’ judgment), which was easiest for ambiguous nouns and hardest for partially matching nouns. The noun-elicited N400 ERP component demonstrated initial sensitivity to repetition and semantic overlap, corresponding to repetition and semantic priming effects, respectively. New and partially matching nouns both elicited a subsequent frontal positivity, which suggested that partially matching anaphors may have been processed as new nouns temporarily. ERPs in an even later time window and ERPs time-locked to sentence-final words suggested that new and partially matching nouns had different effects on comprehension, with partially matching nouns incurring additional processing costs up to the end of the sentence. In contrast to the ERP results, the time-frequency results primarily demonstrated sensitivity to noun repetition, and did not differentiate partially matching anaphors from new nouns. In sum, our results show the ERP and time-frequency effects of referent repetition during discourse comprehension, and demonstrate the potentially demanding nature of establishing the anaphoric meaning of a novel noun.
  • Nieuwland, M. S. (2019). Do ‘early’ brain responses reveal word form prediction during language comprehension? A critical review. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 96, 367-400. doi:10.1016/j.neubiorev.2018.11.019.

    Abstract

    Current theories of language comprehension posit that readers and listeners routinely try to predict the meaning but also the visual or sound form of upcoming words. Whereas most neuroimaging studies on word rediction focus on the N400 ERP or its magnetic equivalent, various studies claim that word form prediction manifests itself in ‘early’, pre N400 brain responses (e.g., ELAN, M100, P130, N1, P2, N200/PMN, N250). Modulations of these components are often taken as evidence that word form prediction impacts early sensory processes (the sensory hypothesis) or, alternatively, the initial stages of word recognition before word meaning is integrated with sentence context (the recognition hypothesis). Here, I comprehensively review studies on sentence- or discourse-level language comprehension that report such effects of prediction on early brain responses. I conclude that the reported evidence for the sensory hypothesis or word recognition hypothesis is weak and inconsistent, and highlight the urgent need for replication of previous findings. I discuss the implications and challenges to current theories of linguistic prediction and suggest avenues for future research.
  • Van Berkum, J. J. A., & Nieuwland, M. S. (2019). A cognitive neuroscience perspective on language comprehension in context. In P. Hagoort (Ed.), Human language: From genes and brain to behavior (pp. 429-442). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., Politzer-Ahles, S., Heyselaar, E., Segaert, K., Darley, E., Kazanina, N., Von Grebmer Zu Wolfsthurn, S., Bartolozzi, F., Kogan, V., Ito, A., Mézière, D., Barr, D. J., Rousselet, G., Ferguson, H. J., Busch-Moreno, S., Fu, X., Tuomainen, J., Kulakova, E., Husband, E. M., Donaldson, D. I. and 3 moreNieuwland, M. S., Politzer-Ahles, S., Heyselaar, E., Segaert, K., Darley, E., Kazanina, N., Von Grebmer Zu Wolfsthurn, S., Bartolozzi, F., Kogan, V., Ito, A., Mézière, D., Barr, D. J., Rousselet, G., Ferguson, H. J., Busch-Moreno, S., Fu, X., Tuomainen, J., Kulakova, E., Husband, E. M., Donaldson, D. I., Kohút, Z., Rueschemeyer, S.-A., & Huettig, F. (2018). Large-scale replication study reveals a limit on probabilistic prediction in language comprehension. eLife, 7: e33468. doi:10.7554/eLife.33468.

    Abstract

    Do people routinely pre-activate the meaning and even the phonological form of upcoming words? The most acclaimed evidence for phonological prediction comes from a 2005 Nature Neuroscience publication by DeLong, Urbach and Kutas, who observed a graded modulation of electrical brain potentials (N400) to nouns and preceding articles by the probability that people use a word to continue the sentence fragment (‘cloze’). In our direct replication study spanning 9 laboratories (N=334), pre-registered replication-analyses and exploratory Bayes factor analyses successfully replicated the noun-results but, crucially, not the article-results. Pre-registered single-trial analyses also yielded a statistically significant effect for the nouns but not the articles. Exploratory Bayesian single-trial analyses showed that the article-effect may be non-zero but is likely far smaller than originally reported and too small to observe without very large sample sizes. Our results do not support the view that readers routinely pre-activate the phonological form of predictable words.

    Additional information

    Data sets
  • Ito, A., Martin, A. E., & Nieuwland, M. S. (2017). How robust are prediction effects in language comprehension? Failure to replicate article-elicited N400 effects. Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 32, 954-965. doi:10.1080/23273798.2016.1242761.

    Abstract

    Current psycholinguistic theory proffers prediction as a central, explanatory mechanism in language processing. However, widely-replicated prediction effects may not mean that prediction is necessary in language processing. As a case in point, C. D. Martin et al. [2013. Bilinguals reading in their second language do not predict upcoming words as native readers do. Journal of Memory and Language, 69 (4), 574 – 588. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2013.08.001] reported ERP evidence for prediction in native- but not in non-native speakers. Articles mismatching an expected noun elicited larger negativity in the N400 time window compared to articles matching the expected noun in native speakers only. We attempted to replicate these findings, but found no evidence for prediction irrespective of language nativeness. We argue that pre-activation of phonological form of upcoming nouns, as evidenced in article-elicited effects, may not be a robust phenomenon. A view of prediction as a necessary computation in language comprehension must be re-evaluated.
  • Ito, A., Martin, A. E., & Nieuwland, M. S. (2017). On predicting form and meaning in a second language. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 43(4), 635-652. doi:10.1037/xlm0000315.

    Abstract

    We used event-related potentials (ERP) to investigate whether Spanish−English bilinguals preactivate form and meaning of predictable words. Participants read high-cloze sentence contexts (e.g., “The student is going to the library to borrow a . . .”), followed by the predictable word (book), a word that was form-related (hook) or semantically related (page) to the predictable word, or an unrelated word (sofa). Word stimulus onset synchrony (SOA) was 500 ms (Experiment 1) or 700 ms (Experiment 2). In both experiments, all nonpredictable words elicited classic N400 effects. Form-related and unrelated words elicited similar N400 effects. Semantically related words elicited smaller N400s than unrelated words, which however, did not depend on cloze value of the predictable word. Thus, we found no N400 evidence for preactivation of form or meaning at either SOA, unlike native-speaker results (Ito, Corley et al., 2016). However, non-native speakers did show the post-N400 posterior positivity (LPC effect) for form-related words like native speakers, but only at the slower SOA. This LPC effect increased gradually with cloze value of the predictable word. We do not interpret this effect as necessarily demonstrating prediction, but rather as evincing combined effects of top-down activation (contextual meaning) and bottom-up activation (form similarity) that result in activation of unseen words that fit the context well, thereby leading to an interpretation conflict reflected in the LPC. Although there was no evidence that non-native speakers preactivate form or meaning, non-native speakers nonetheless appear to use bottom-up and top-down information to constrain incremental interpretation much like native speakers do.
  • Ito, A., Martin, A. E., & Nieuwland, M. S. (2017). Why the A/AN prediction effect may be hard to replicate: A rebuttal to DeLong, Urbach & Kutas (2017). Language, Cognition and Neuroscience, 32(8), 974-983. doi:10.1080/23273798.2017.1323112.
  • Martin, A. E., Huettig, F., & Nieuwland, M. S. (2017). Can structural priming answer the important questions about language? A commentary on Branigan and Pickering "An experimental approach to linguistic representation". Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 40: e304. doi:10.1017/S0140525X17000528.

    Abstract

    While structural priming makes a valuable contribution to psycholinguistics, it does not allow direct observation of representation, nor escape “source ambiguity.” Structural priming taps into implicit memory representations and processes that may differ from what is used online. We question whether implicit memory for language can and should be equated with linguistic representation or with language processing.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., & Martin, A. E. (2017). Neural oscillations and a nascent corticohippocampal theory of reference. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 29(5), 896-910. doi:10.1162/jocn_a_01091.

    Abstract

    The ability to use words to refer to the world is vital to the communicative power of human language. In particular, the anaphoric use of words to refer to previously mentioned concepts (antecedents) allows dialogue to be coherent and meaningful. Psycholinguistic theory posits that anaphor comprehension involves reactivating a memory representation of the antecedent. Whereas this implies the involvement of recognition memory, or the mnemonic sub-routines by which people distinguish old from new, the neural processes for reference resolution are largely unknown. Here, we report time-frequency analysis of four EEG experiments to reveal the increased coupling of functional neural systems associated with referentially coherent expressions compared to referentially problematic expressions. Despite varying in modality, language, and type of referential expression, all experiments showed larger gamma-band power for referentially coherent expressions compared to referentially problematic expressions. Beamformer analysis in high-density Experiment 4 localised the gamma-band increase to posterior parietal cortex around 400-600 ms after anaphor-onset and to frontaltemporal cortex around 500-1000 ms. We argue that the observed gamma-band power increases reflect successful referential binding and resolution, which links incoming information to antecedents through an interaction between the brain’s recognition memory networks and frontal-temporal language network. We integrate these findings with previous results from patient and neuroimaging studies, and we outline a nascent cortico-hippocampal theory of reference.
  • Barış Demiral, Ş., Gambi, C., Nieuwland, M. S., & Pickering, M. J. (2016). Neural correlates of verbal joint action: ERPs reveal common perception and action systems in a shared-Stroop task. Brain Research, 1649, 79-89. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2016.08.025.

    Abstract

    Recent social-cognitive research suggests that the anticipation of co-actors' actions influences people's mental representations. However, the precise nature of such representations is still unclear. In this study we investigated verbal joint representations in a delayed Stroop paradigm, where each participant responded to one color after a short delay. Participants either performed the task as a single actor (single-action, Experiment 1), or they performed it together (joint-action, Experiment 2). We investigated effects of co-actors' actions on the ERP components associated with perceptual conflict (Go N2) and response selection (P3b). Compared to single-action, joint-action reduced the N2 amplitude congruency effect when participants had to respond (Go trials), indicating that representing a co-actor's utterance helped to dissociate action codes and attenuated perceptual conflict for the responding participant. Yet, on NoGo trials the centro-parietal P3 (P3b) component amplitude increased for joint-action, suggesting that participants mapped the stimuli onto the co-actor's upcoming response as if it were their own response. We conclude that people represent others' utterances similarly to the way they represent their own utterances, and that shared perception-action codes for self and others can sometimes reduce, rather than enhance, perceptual conflict.
  • Freunberger, D., & Nieuwland, M. S. (2016). Incremental comprehension of spoken quantifier sentences: Evidence from brain potentials. Brain Research, 1646, 475-481. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2016.06.035.

    Abstract

    Do people incrementally incorporate the meaning of quantifier expressions to understand an unfolding sentence? Most previous studies concluded that quantifiers do not immediately influence how a sentence is understood based on the observation that online N400-effects differed from offline plausibility judgments. Those studies, however, used serial visual presentation (SVP), which involves unnatural reading. In the current ERP-experiment, we presented spoken positive and negative quantifier sentences (“Practically all/practically no postmen prefer delivering mail, when the weather is good/bad during the day”). Different from results obtained in a previously reported SVP-study (Nieuwland, 2016) sentence truth-value N400 effects occurred in positive and negative quantifier sentences alike, reflecting fully incremental quantifier comprehension. This suggests that the prosodic information available during spoken language comprehension supports the generation of online predictions for upcoming words and that, at least for quantifier sentences, comprehension of spoken language may proceed more incrementally than comprehension during SVP reading.
  • Ito, A., Corley, M., Pickering, M. J., Martin, A. E., & Nieuwland, M. S. (2016). Predicting form and meaning: Evidence from brain potentials. Journal of Memory and Language, 86, 157-171. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2015.10.007.

    Abstract

    We used ERPs to investigate the pre-activation of form and meaning in language comprehension. Participants read high-cloze sentence contexts (e.g., “The student is going to the library to borrow a…”), followed by a word that was predictable (book), form-related (hook) or semantically related (page) to the predictable word, or unrelated (sofa). At a 500 ms SOA (Experiment 1), semantically related words, but not form-related words, elicited a reduced N400 compared to unrelated words. At a 700 ms SOA (Experiment 2), semantically related words and form-related words elicited reduced N400 effects, but the effect for form-related words occurred in very high-cloze sentences only. At both SOAs, form-related words elicited an enhanced, post-N400 posterior positivity (Late Positive Component effect). The N400 effects suggest that readers can pre-activate meaning and form information for highly predictable words, but form pre-activation is more limited than meaning pre-activation. The post-N400 LPC effect suggests that participants detected the form similarity between expected and encountered input. Pre-activation of word forms crucially depends upon the time that readers have to make predictions, in line with production-based accounts of linguistic prediction.
  • Kulakova, E., & Nieuwland, M. S. (2016). Pragmatic skills predict online counterfactual comprehension: Evidence from the N400. Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience, 16(5), 814-824. doi:10.3758/s13415-016-0433-4.

    Abstract

    Counterfactual thought allows people to consider alternative worlds they know to be false. Communicating these thoughts through language poses a social-communicative challenge because listeners typically expect a speaker to produce true utterances, but counterfactuals per definition convey information that is false. Listeners must therefore incorporate overt linguistic cues (subjunctive mood, such as in If I loved you then) in a rapid way to infer the intended counterfactual meaning. The present EEG study focused on the comprehension of such counterfactual antecedents and investigated if pragmatic ability—the ability to apply knowledge of the social-communicative use of language in daily life—predicts the online generation of counterfactual worlds. This yielded two novel findings: (1) Words that are consistent with factual knowledge incur a semantic processing cost, as reflected in larger N400 amplitude, in counterfactual antecedents compared to hypothetical antecedents (If sweets were/are made of sugar). We take this to suggest that counterfactuality is quickly incorporated during language comprehension and reduces online expectations based on factual knowledge. (2) Individual scores on the Autism Quotient Communication subscale modulated this effect, suggesting that individuals who are better at understanding the communicative intentions of other people are more likely to reduce knowledge-based expectations in counterfactuals. These results are the first demonstration of the real-time pragmatic processes involved in creating possible worlds.
  • Kulakova, E., & Nieuwland, M. S. (2016). Understanding Counterfactuality: A Review of Experimental Evidence for the Dual Meaning of Counterfactuals. Language and Linguistics Compass, 10(2), 49-65. doi:10.1111/lnc3.12175.

    Abstract

    Cognitive and linguistic theories of counterfactual language comprehension assume that counterfactuals convey a dual meaning. Subjunctive-counterfactual conditionals (e.g., ‘If Tom had studied hard, he would have passed the test’) express a supposition while implying the factual state of affairs (Tom has not studied hard and failed). The question of how counterfactual dual meaning plays out during language processing is currently gaining interest in psycholinguistics. Whereas numerous studies using offline measures of language processing consistently support counterfactual dual meaning, evidence coming from online studies is less conclusive. Here, we review the available studies that examine online counterfactual language comprehension through behavioural measurement (self-paced reading times, eye-tracking) and neuroimaging (electroencephalography, functional magnetic resonance imaging). While we argue that these studies do not offer direct evidence for the online computation of counterfactual dual meaning, they provide valuable information about the way counterfactual meaning unfolds in time and influences successive information processing. Further advances in research on counterfactual comprehension require more specific predictions about how counterfactual dual meaning impacts incremental sentence processing.
  • Nieuwland, M. S. (2016). Quantification, prediction, and the online impact of sentence truth-value: Evidence from event-related potentials. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 42(2), 316-334. doi:10.1037/xlm0000173.

    Abstract

    Do negative quantifiers like “few” reduce people’s ability to rapidly evaluate incoming language with respect to world knowledge? Previous research has addressed this question by examining whether online measures of quantifier comprehension match the “final” interpretation reflected in verification judgments. However, these studies confounded quantifier valence with its impact on the unfolding expectations for upcoming words, yielding mixed results. In the current event-related potentials study, participants read negative and positive quantifier sentences matched on cloze probability and on truth-value (e.g., “Most/Few gardeners plant their flowers during the spring/winter for best results”). Regardless of whether participants explicitly verified the sentences or not, true-positive quantifier sentences elicited reduced N400s compared with false-positive quantifier sentences, reflecting the facilitated semantic retrieval of words that render a sentence true. No such facilitation was seen in negative quantifier sentences. However, mixed-effects model analyses (with cloze value and truth-value as continuous predictors) revealed that decreasing cloze values were associated with an interaction pattern between truth-value and quantifier, whereas increasing cloze values were associated with more similar truth-value effects regardless of quantifier. Quantifier sentences are thus understood neither always in 2 sequential stages, nor always in a partial-incremental fashion, nor always in a maximally incremental fashion. Instead, and in accordance with prediction-based views of sentence comprehension, quantifier sentence comprehension depends on incorporation of quantifier meaning into an online, knowledge-based prediction for upcoming words. Fully incremental quantifier interpretation occurs when quantifiers are incorporated into sufficiently strong online predictions for upcoming words. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2016 APA, all rights reserved)
  • Nieuwland, M. S. (2015). The truth before and after: Brain potentials reveal automatic activation of event knowledge during sentence comprehension. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 27(11), 2215-2228. doi:10.1162/jocn_a_00856.

    Abstract

    How does knowledge of real-world events shape our understanding of incoming language? Do temporal terms like “before” and “after” impact the online recruitment of real-world event knowledge? These questions were addressed in two ERP experiments, wherein participants read sentences that started with “before” or “after” and contained a critical word that rendered each sentence true or false (e.g., “Before/After the global economic crisis, securing a mortgage was easy/harder”). The critical words were matched on predictability, rated truth value, and semantic relatedness to the words in the sentence. Regardless of whether participants explicitly verified the sentences or not, false-after-sentences elicited larger N400s than true-after-sentences, consistent with the well-established finding that semantic retrieval of concepts is facilitated when they are consistent with real-world knowledge. However, although the truth judgments did not differ between before- and after-sentences, no such sentence N400 truth value effect occurred in before-sentences, whereas false-before-sentences elicited an enhanced subsequent positive ERPs. The temporal term “before” itself elicited more negative ERPs at central electrode channels than “after.” These patterns of results show that, irrespective of ultimate sentence truth value judgments, semantic retrieval of concepts is momentarily facilitated when they are consistent with the known event outcome compared to when they are not. However, this inappropriate facilitation incurs later processing costs as reflected in the subsequent positive ERP deflections. The results suggest that automatic activation of event knowledge can impede the incremental semantic processes required to establish sentence truth value.
  • Martin, A. E., Nieuwland, M. S., & Carrieras, M. (2014). Agreement attraction during comprehension of grammatical sentences: ERP evidence from ellipsis. Brain and Language, 135, 42-51. doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2014.05.001.

    Abstract

    Successful dependency resolution during language comprehension relies on accessing certain representations in memory, and not others. We recently reported event-related potential (ERP) evidence that syntactically unavailable, intervening attractor-nouns interfered during comprehension of Spanish noun-phrase ellipsis (the determiner otra/otro): grammatically correct determiners that mismatched the gender of attractor-nouns elicited a sustained negativity as also observed for incorrect determiners (Martin, Nieuwland, & Carreiras, 2012). The current study sought to extend this novel finding in sentences containing object-extracted relative clauses, where the antecedent may be less prominent. Whereas correct determiners that matched the gender of attractor-nouns now elicited an early anterior negativity as also observed for mismatching determiners, the previously reported interaction pattern was replicated in P600 responses to subsequent words. Our results suggest that structural and gender information is simultaneously taken into account, providing further evidence for retrieval interference during comprehension of grammatical sentences.
  • Nieuwland, M. S. (2014). “Who’s he?” Event-related brain potentials and unbound pronouns. Journal of Memory and Language, 76, 1-28. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2014.06.002.

    Abstract

    Three experiments used event-related potentials to examine the processing consequences of gender-mismatching pronouns (e.g., “The aunt found out that he had won the lottery”), which have been shown to elicit P600 effects when judged as syntactically anomalous (Osterhout & Mobley, 1995). In each experiment, mismatching pronouns elicited a sustained, frontal negative shift (Nref) compared to matching pronouns: when participants were instructed to posit a new referent for mismatching pronouns (Experiment 1), and without this instruction (Experiments 2 and 3). In Experiments 1 and 2, the observed Nref was robust only in individuals with higher reading span scores. In Experiment 1, participants with lower reading span showed P600 effects instead, consistent with an attempt at coreferential interpretation despite gender mismatch. The results from the experiments combined suggest that, in absence of an acceptability judgment task, people are more likely to interpret mismatching pronouns as referring to an unknown, unheralded antecedent than as a grammatically anomalous anaphor for a given antecedent.
  • Nieuwland, M. S. (2013). “If a lion could speak …”: Online sensitivity to propositional truth-value of unrealistic counterfactual sentences. Journal of Memory and Language, 68(1), 54-67. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2012.08.003.

    Abstract

    People can establish whether a sentence is hypothetically true even if what it describes can never be literally true given the laws of the natural world. Two event-related potential (ERP) experiments examined electrophysiological responses to sentences about unrealistic counterfactual worlds that require people to construct novel conceptual combinations and infer their consequences as the sentence unfolds in time (e.g., “If dogs had gills…”). Experiment 1 established that without this premise, described consequences (e.g., “Dobermans would breathe under water …”) elicited larger N400 responses than real-world true sentences. Incorporation of the counterfactual premise in Experiment 2 generated similar N400 effects of propositional truth-value in counterfactual and real-world sentences, suggesting that the counterfactual context eliminated the interpretive problems posed by locally anomalous sentences. This result did not depend on cloze probability of the sentences. In contrast to earlier findings regarding online comprehension of logical operators and counterfactuals, these results show that ongoing processing can be directly impacted by propositional truth-value, even that of unrealistic counterfactuals.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., Martin, A. E., & Carreiras, M. (2013). Event-related brain potential evidence for animacy processing asymmetries during sentence comprehension. Brain and Language, 126(2), 151-158. doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2013.04.005.

    Abstract

    The animacy distinction is deeply rooted in the language faculty. A key example is differential object marking, the phenomenon where animate sentential objects receive specific marking. We used event-related potentials to examine the neural processing consequences of case-marking violations on animate and inanimate direct objects in Spanish. Inanimate objects with incorrect prepositional case marker ‘a’ (‘al suelo’) elicited a P600 effect compared to unmarked objects, consistent with previous literature. However, animate objects without the required prepositional case marker (‘el obispo’) only elicited an N400 effect compared to marked objects. This novel finding, an exclusive N400 modulation by a straightforward grammatical rule violation, does not follow from extant neurocognitive models of sentence processing, and mirrors unexpected “semantic P600” effects for thematically problematic sentences. These results may reflect animacy asymmetry in competition for argument prominence: following the article, thematic interpretation difficulties are elicited only by unexpectedly animate objects.
  • Martin, A. E., Nieuwland, M. S., & Carreiras, M. (2012). Event-related brain potentials index cue-based retrieval interference during sentence comprehension. NeuroImage, 59(2), 1859-1869. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.08.057.

    Abstract

    Successful language use requires access to products of past processing within an evolving discourse. A central issue for any neurocognitive theory of language then concerns the role of memory variables during language processing. Under a cue-based retrieval account of language comprehension, linguistic dependency resolution (e.g., retrieving antecedents) is subject to interference from other information in the sentence, especially information that occurs between the words that form the dependency (e.g., between the antecedent and the retrieval site). Retrieval interference may then shape processing complexity as a function of the match of the information at retrieval with the antecedent versus other recent or similar items in memory. To address these issues, we studied the online processing of ellipsis in Castilian Spanish, a language with morphological gender agreement. We recorded event-related brain potentials while participants read sentences containing noun-phrase ellipsis indicated by the determiner otro/a (‘another’). These determiners had a grammatically correct or incorrect gender with respect to their antecedent nouns that occurred earlier in the sentence. Moreover, between each antecedent and determiner, another noun phrase occurred that was structurally unavailable as an antecedent and that matched or mismatched the gender of the antecedent (i.e., a local agreement attractor). In contrast to extant P600 results on agreement violation processing, and inconsistent with predictions from neurocognitive models of sentence processing, grammatically incorrect determiners evoked a sustained, broadly distributed negativity compared to correct ones between 400 and 1000 ms after word onset, possibly related to sustained negativities as observed for referential processing difficulties. Crucially, this effect was modulated by the attractor: an increased negativity was observed for grammatically correct determiners that did not match the gender of the attractor, suggesting that structurally unavailable noun phrases were at least temporarily considered for grammatically correct ellipsis. These results constitute the first ERP evidence for cue-based retrieval interference during comprehension of grammatical sentences.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., Martin, A. E., & Carreiras, M. (2012). Brain regions that process case: Evidence from basque. Human Brain Mapping, 33(11), 2509-2520. doi:10.1002/hbm.21377.

    Abstract

    The aim of this event-related fMRI study was to investigate the cortical networks involved in case processing, an operation that is crucial to language comprehension yet whose neural underpinnings are not well-understood. What is the relationship of these networks to those that serve other aspects of syntactic and semantic processing? Participants read Basque sentences that contained case violations, number agreement violations or semantic anomalies, or that were both syntactically and semantically correct. Case violations elicited activity increases, compared to correct control sentences, in a set of parietal regions including the posterior cingulate, the precuneus, and the left and right inferior parietal lobules. Number agreement violations also elicited activity increases in left and right inferior parietal regions, and additional activations in the left and right middle frontal gyrus. Regions-of-interest analyses showed that almost all of the clusters that were responsive to case or number agreement violations did not differentiate between these two. In contrast, the left and right anterior inferior frontal gyrus and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex were only sensitive to semantic violations. Our results suggest that whereas syntactic and semantic anomalies clearly recruit distinct neural circuits, case, and number violations recruit largely overlapping neural circuits and that the distinction between the two rests on the relative contributions of parietal and prefrontal regions, respectively. Furthermore, our results are consistent with recently reported contributions of bilateral parietal and dorsolateral brain regions to syntactic processing, pointing towards potential extensions of current neurocognitive theories of language. Hum Brain Mapp, 2012. © 2011 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
  • Nieuwland, M. S. (2012). Establishing propositional truth-value in counterfactual and real-world contexts during sentence comprehension: Differential sensitivity of the left and right inferior frontal gyri. NeuroImage, 59(4), 3433-3440. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.11.018.

    Abstract

    What makes a proposition true or false has traditionally played an essential role in philosophical and linguistic theories of meaning. A comprehensive neurobiological theory of language must ultimately be able to explain the combined contributions of real-world truth-value and discourse context to sentence meaning. This fMRI study investigated the neural circuits that are sensitive to the propositional truth-value of sentences about counterfactual worlds, aiming to reveal differential hemispheric sensitivity of the inferior prefrontal gyri to counterfactual truth-value and real-world truth-value. Participants read true or false counterfactual conditional sentences (“If N.A.S.A. had not developed its Apollo Project, the first country to land on the moon would be Russia/America”) and real-world sentences (“Because N.A.S.A. developed its Apollo Project, the first country to land on the moon has been America/Russia”) that were matched on contextual constraint and truth-value. ROI analyses showed that whereas the left BA 47 showed similar activity increases to counterfactual false sentences and to real-world false sentences (compared to true sentences), the right BA 47 showed a larger increase for counterfactual false sentences. Moreover, whole-brain analyses revealed a distributed neural circuit for dealing with propositional truth-value. These results constitute the first evidence for hemispheric differences in processing counterfactual truth-value and real-world truth-value, and point toward additional right hemisphere involvement in counterfactual comprehension.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., & Martin, A. E. (2012). If the real world were irrelevant, so to speak: The role of propositional truth-value in counterfactual sentence comprehension. Cognition, 122(1), 102-109. doi:10.1016/j.cognition.2011.09.001.

    Abstract

    Propositional truth-value can be a defining feature of a sentence’s relevance to the unfolding discourse, and establishing propositional truth-value in context can be key to successful interpretation. In the current study, we investigate its role in the comprehension of counterfactual conditionals, which describe imaginary consequences of hypothetical events, and are thought to require keeping in mind both what is true and what is false. Pre-stored real-world knowledge may therefore intrude upon and delay counterfactual comprehension, which is predicted by some accounts of discourse comprehension, and has been observed during online comprehension. The impact of propositional truth-value may thus be delayed in counterfactual conditionals, as also claimed for sentences containing other types of logical operators (e.g., negation, scalar quantifiers). In an event-related potential (ERP) experiment, we investigated the impact of propositional truth-value when described consequences are both true and predictable given the counterfactual premise. False words elicited larger N400 ERPs than true words, in negated counterfactual sentences (e.g., “If N.A.S.A. had not developed its Apollo Project, the first country to land on the moon would have been Russia/America”) and real-world sentences (e.g., “Because N.A.S.A. developed its Apollo Project, the first country to land on the moon was America/Russia”) alike. These indistinguishable N400 effects of propositional truth-value, elicited by opposite word pairs, argue against disruptions by real-world knowledge during counterfactual comprehension, and suggest that incoming words are mapped onto the counterfactual context without any delay. Thus, provided a sufficiently constraining context, propositional truth-value rapidly impacts ongoing semantic processing, be the proposition factual or counterfactual.
  • Begeer, S., Malle, B. F., Nieuwland, M. S., & Keysar, B. (2010). Using theory of mind to represent and take part in social interactions: Comparing individuals with high-functioning autism and typically developing controls. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 7(1), 104-122. doi:10.1080/17405620903024263.

    Abstract

    The literature suggests that individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are deficient in their Theory of Mind (ToM) abilities. They sometimes do not seem to appreciate that behaviour is motivated by underlying mental states. If this is true, then individuals with ASD should also be deficient when they use their ToM to represent and take part in dyadic interactions. In the current study we compared the performance of normally intelligent adolescents and adults with ASD to typically developing controls. In one task they heard a narrative about an interaction and then retold it. In a second task they played a communication game that required them to take into account another person's perspective. We found that when they described people's behaviour the ASD individuals used fewer mental terms in their story narration, suggesting a lower tendency to represent interactions in mentalistic terms. Surprisingly, ASD individuals and control participants showed the same level of performance in the communication game that required them to distinguish between their beliefs and the other's beliefs. Given that ASD individuals show no deficiency in using their ToM in real interaction, it is unlikely that they have a systematically deficient ToM.
  • Geurts, H. M., Broeders, m., & Nieuwland, M. S. (2010). Thinking outside the executive functions box: Theory of mind and pragmatic abilities in attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 7(1), 135-151. doi:10.1080/17405620902906965.

    Abstract

    An endophenotype for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (AD/HD) is executive functioning. In the autism and developmental literature executive dysfunctions has also been linked to theory of mind (ToM) and pragmatic language use. The central question of this review is whether deficits in ToM and pragmatic language use are common in AD/HD. AD/HD seems to be associated with pragmatic deficits, but not with ToM deficits. In this review we address how this pattern of findings might facilitate the understanding of the commonalities and differences between executive functioning, ToM, and pragmatic abilities. Based on the reviewed studies we conclude that ToM is not likely to be a potential endophenotype for AD/HD, while it is too early to draw such a conclusion for pragmatic language use.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., Ditman, T., & Kuperberg, G. R. (2010). On the incrementality of pragmatic processing: An ERP investigation of informativeness and pragmatic abilities. Journal of Memory and Language, 63(3), 324-346. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2010.06.005.

    Abstract

    In two event-related potential (ERP) experiments, we determined to what extent Grice’s maxim of informativeness as well as pragmatic ability contributes to the incremental build-up of sentence meaning, by examining the impact of underinformative versus informative scalar statements (e.g. “Some people have lungs/pets, and…”) on the N400 event-related potential (ERP), an electrophysiological index of semantic processing. In Experiment 1, only pragmatically skilled participants (as indexed by the Autism Quotient Communication subscale) showed a larger N400 to underinformative statements. In Experiment 2, this effect disappeared when the critical words were unfocused so that the local underinformativeness went unnoticed (e.g., “Some people have lungs that…”). Our results suggest that, while pragmatic scalar meaning can incrementally contribute to sentence comprehension, this contribution is dependent on contextual factors, whether these are derived from individual pragmatic abilities or the overall experimental context.
  • Van Berkum, J. J. A., Holleman, B., Nieuwland, M. S., Otten, M., & Murre, J. (2009). Right or wrong? The brain's fast response to morally objectionable statements. Psychological Science, 20, 1092 -1099. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02411.x.

    Abstract

    How does the brain respond to statements that clash with a person's value system? We recorded event-related brain potentials while respondents from contrasting political-ethical backgrounds completed an attitude survey on drugs, medical ethics, social conduct, and other issues. Our results show that value-based disagreement is unlocked by language extremely rapidly, within 200 to 250 ms after the first word that indicates a clash with the reader's value system (e.g., "I think euthanasia is an acceptable/unacceptable…"). Furthermore, strong disagreement rapidly influences the ongoing analysis of meaning, which indicates that even very early processes in language comprehension are sensitive to a person's value system. Our results testify to rapid reciprocal links between neural systems for language and for valuation.

    Additional information

    Critical survey statements (in Dutch)
  • Nieuwland, M. S., & Van Berkum, J. J. A. (2008). The interplay between semantic and referential aspects of anaphoric noun phrase resolution: Evidence from ERPs. Brain & Language, 106, 119-131. doi:10.1016/j.bandl.2008.05.001.

    Abstract

    In this event-related brain potential (ERP) study, we examined how semantic and referential aspects of anaphoric noun phrase resolution interact during discourse comprehension. We used a full factorial design that crossed referential ambiguity with semantic incoherence. Ambiguous anaphors elicited a sustained negative shift (Nref effect), and incoherent anaphors elicited an N400 effect. Simultaneously ambiguous and incoherent anaphors elicited an ERP pattern resembling that of the incoherent anaphors. These results suggest that semantic incoherence can preclude readers from engaging in anaphoric inferencing. Furthermore, approximately half of our participants unexpectedly showed common late positive effects to the three types of problematic anaphors. We relate the latter finding to recent accounts of what the P600 might reflect, and to the role of individual differences therein.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., & Van Berkum, J. J. A. (2008). The neurocognition of referential ambiguity in language comprehension. Language and Linguistics Compass, 2(4), 603-630. doi:10.1111/j.1749-818x.2008.00070.x.

    Abstract

    Referential ambiguity arises whenever readers or listeners are unable to select a unique referent for a linguistic expression out of multiple candidates. In the current article, we review a series of neurocognitive experiments from our laboratory that examine the neural correlates of referential ambiguity, and that employ the brain signature of referential ambiguity to derive functional properties of the language comprehension system. The results of our experiments converge to show that referential ambiguity resolution involves making an inference to evaluate the referential candidates. These inferences only take place when both referential candidates are, at least initially, equally plausible antecedents. Whether comprehenders make these anaphoric inferences is strongly context dependent and co-determined by characteristics of the reader. In addition, readers appear to disregard referential ambiguity when the competing candidates are each semantically incoherent, suggesting that, under certain circumstances, semantic analysis can proceed even when referential analysis has not yielded a unique antecedent. Finally, results from a functional neuroimaging study suggest that whereas the neural systems that deal with referential ambiguity partially overlap with those that deal with referential failure, they show an inverse coupling with the neural systems associated with semantic processing, possibly reflecting the relative contributions of semantic and episodic processing to re-establish semantic and referential coherence, respectively.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., & Kuperberg, G. R. (2008). When the truth Is not too hard to handle. An event-related potential study on the pragmatics of negation. Psychological Science, 19(12), 1213-1218. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02226.x.

    Abstract

    Our brains rapidly map incoming language onto what we hold to be true. Yet there are claims that such integration and verification processes are delayed in sentences containing negation words like not. However, studies have often confounded whether a statement is true and whether it is a natural thing to say during normal communication. In an event-related potential (ERP) experiment, we aimed to disentangle effects of truth value and pragmatic licensing on the comprehension of affirmative and negated real-world statements. As in affirmative sentences, false words elicited a larger N400 ERP than did true words in pragmatically licensed negated sentences (e.g., “In moderation, drinking red wine isn't bad/good…”), whereas true and false words elicited similar responses in unlicensed negated sentences (e.g., “A baby bunny's fur isn't very hard/soft…”). These results suggest that negation poses no principled obstacle for readers to immediately relate incoming words to what they hold to be true.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., Petersson, K. M., & Van Berkum, J. J. A. (2007). On sense and reference: Examining the functional neuroanatomy of referential processing. NeuroImage, 37(3), 993-1004. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2007.05.048.

    Abstract

    In an event-related fMRI study, we examined the cortical networks involved in establishing reference during language comprehension. We compared BOLD responses to sentences containing referentially ambiguous pronouns (e.g., “Ronald told Frank that he…”), referentially failing pronouns (e.g., “Rose told Emily that he…”) or coherent pronouns. Referential ambiguity selectively recruited medial prefrontal regions, suggesting that readers engaged in problem-solving to select a unique referent from the discourse model. Referential failure elicited activation increases in brain regions associated with morpho-syntactic processing, and, for those readers who took failing pronouns to refer to unmentioned entities, additional regions associated with elaborative inferencing were observed. The networks activated by these two referential problems did not overlap with the network activated by a standard semantic anomaly. Instead, we observed a double dissociation, in that the systems activated by semantic anomaly are deactivated by referential ambiguity, and vice versa. This inverse coupling may reflect the dynamic recruitment of semantic and episodic processing to resolve semantically or referentially problematic situations. More generally, our findings suggest that neurocognitive accounts of language comprehension need to address not just how we parse a sentence and combine individual word meanings, but also how we determine who's who and what's what during language comprehension.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., Otten, M., & Van Berkum, J. J. A. (2007). Who are you talking about? Tracking discourse-level referential processing with event-related brain potentials. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 19(2), 228-236. doi:10.1162/jocn.2007.19.2.228.

    Abstract

    In this event-related brain potentials (ERPs) study, we explored the possibility to selectively track referential ambiguity during spoken discourse comprehension. Earlier ERP research has shown that referentially ambiguous nouns (e.g., “the girl” in a two-girl context) elicit a frontal, sustained negative shift relative to unambiguous control words. In the current study, we examined whether this ERP effect reflects “deep” situation model ambiguity or “superficial” textbase ambiguity. We contrasted these different interpretations by investigating whether a discourse-level semantic manipulation that prevents referential ambiguity also averts the elicitation of a referentially induced ERP effect. We compared ERPs elicited by nouns that were referentially nonambiguous but were associated with two discourse entities (e.g., “the girl” with two girls introduced in the context, but one of which has died or left the scene), with referentially ambiguous and nonambiguous control words. Although temporally referentially ambiguous nouns elicited a frontal negative shift compared to control words, the “double bound” but referentially nonambiguous nouns did not. These results suggest that it is possible to selectively track referential ambiguity with ERPs at the level that is most relevant to discourse comprehension, the situation model.
  • Otten, M., Nieuwland, M. S., & Van Berkum, J. J. A. (2007). Great expectations: Specific lexical anticipation influences the processing of spoken language. BMC Neuroscience, 8: 89. doi:10.1186/1471-2202-8-89.

    Abstract

    Background Recently several studies have shown that people use contextual information to make predictions about the rest of the sentence or story as the text unfolds. Using event related potentials (ERPs) we tested whether these on-line predictions are based on a message-based representation of the discourse or on simple automatic activation by individual words. Subjects heard short stories that were highly constraining for one specific noun, or stories that were not specifically predictive but contained the same prime words as the predictive stories. To test whether listeners make specific predictions critical nouns were preceded by an adjective that was inflected according to, or in contrast with, the gender of the expected noun. Results When the message of the preceding discourse was predictive, adjectives with an unexpected gender-inflection evoked a negative deflection over right-frontal electrodes between 300 and 600 ms. This effect was not present in the prime control context, indicating that the prediction mismatch does not hinge on word-based priming but is based on the actual message of the discourse. Conclusions When listening to a constraining discourse people rapidly make very specific predictions about the remainder of the story, as the story unfolds. These predictions are not simply based on word-based automatic activation, but take into account the actual message of the discourse.
  • Van Berkum, J. J. A., Koornneef, A. W., Otten, M., & Nieuwland, M. S. (2007). Establishing reference in language comprehension: An electrophysiological perspective. Brain Research, 1146, 158-171. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2006.06.091.

    Abstract

    The electrophysiology of language comprehension has long been dominated by research on syntactic and semantic integration. However, to understand expressions like "he did it" or "the little girl", combining word meanings in accordance with semantic and syntactic constraints is not enough--readers and listeners also need to work out what or who is being referred to. We review our event-related brain potential research on the processes involved in establishing reference, and present a new experiment in which we examine when and how the implicit causality associated with specific interpersonal verbs affects the interpretation of a referentially ambiguous pronoun. The evidence suggests that upon encountering a singular noun or pronoun, readers and listeners immediately inspect their situation model for a suitable discourse entity, such that they can discriminate between having too many, too few, or exactly the right number of referents within at most half a second. Furthermore, our implicit causality findings indicate that a fragment like "David praised Linda because..." can immediately foreground a particular referent, to the extent that a subsequent "he" is at least initially construed as a syntactic error. In all, our brain potential findings suggest that referential processing is highly incremental, and not necessarily contingent upon the syntax. In addition, they demonstrate that we can use ERPs to relatively selectively keep track of how readers and listeners establish reference.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., & Van Berkum, J. J. A. (2006). Individual differences and contextual bias in pronoun resolution: Evidence from ERPs. Brain Research, 1118(1), 155-167. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2006.08.022.

    Abstract

    Although we usually have no trouble finding the right antecedent for a pronoun, the co-reference relations between pronouns and antecedents in everyday language are often ‘formally’ ambiguous. But a pronoun is only really ambiguous if a reader or listener indeed perceives it to be ambiguous. Whether this is the case may depend on at least two factors: the language processing skills of an individual reader, and the contextual bias towards one particular referential interpretation. In the current study, we used event related brain potentials (ERPs) to explore how both these factors affect the resolution of referentially ambiguous pronouns. We compared ERPs elicited by formally ambiguous and non-ambiguous pronouns that were embedded in simple sentences (e.g., “Jennifer Lopez told Madonna that she had too much money.”). Individual differences in language processing skills were assessed with the Reading Span task, while the contextual bias of each sentence (up to the critical pronoun) had been assessed in a referential cloze pretest. In line with earlier research, ambiguous pronouns elicited a sustained, frontal negative shift relative to non-ambiguous pronouns at the group-level. The size of this effect was correlated with Reading Span score, as well as with contextual bias. These results suggest that whether a reader perceives a formally ambiguous pronoun to be ambiguous is subtly co-determined by both individual language processing skills and contextual bias.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., & Van Berkum, J. J. A. (2006). When peanuts fall in love: N400 evidence for the power of discourse. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 18(7), 1098-1111. doi:10.1162/jocn.2006.18.7.1098.

    Abstract

    In linguistic theories of how sentences encode meaning, a distinction is often made between the context-free rule-based combination of lexical–semantic features of the words within a sentence (‘‘semantics’’), and the contributions made by wider context (‘‘pragmatics’’). In psycholinguistics, this distinction has led to the view that listeners initially compute a local, context-independent meaning of a phrase or sentence before relating it to the wider context. An important aspect of such a two-step perspective on interpretation is that local semantics cannot initially be overruled by global contextual factors. In two spoken-language event-related potential experiments, we tested the viability of this claim by examining whether discourse context can overrule the impact of the core lexical–semantic feature animacy, considered to be an innate organizing principle of cognition. Two-step models of interpretation predict that verb–object animacy violations, as in ‘‘The girl comforted the clock,’’ will always perturb the unfolding interpretation process, regardless of wider context. When presented in isolation, such anomalies indeed elicit a clear N400 effect, a sign of interpretive problems. However, when the anomalies were embedded in a supportive context (e.g., a girl talking to a clock about his depression), this N400 effect disappeared completely. Moreover, given a suitable discourse context (e.g., a story about an amorous peanut), animacyviolating predicates (‘‘the peanut was in love’’) were actually processed more easily than canonical predicates (‘‘the peanut was salted’’). Our findings reveal that discourse context can immediately overrule local lexical–semantic violations, and therefore suggest that language comprehension does not involve an initially context-free semantic analysis.
  • Nieuwland, M. S., & Van Berkum, J. J. A. (2005). Testing the limits of the semantic illusion phenomenon: ERPs reveal temporary semantic change deafness in discourse comprehension. Cognitive Brain Research, 24(3), 691-701. doi:10.1016/j.cogbrainres.2005.04.003.

    Abstract

    In general, language comprehension is surprisingly reliable. Listeners very rapidly extract meaning from the unfolding speech signal, on a word-by-word basis, and usually successfully. Research on ‘semantic illusions’ however suggests that under certain conditions, people fail to notice that the linguistic input simply doesn't make sense. In the current event-related brain potentials (ERP) study, we examined whether listeners would, under such conditions, spontaneously detect an anomaly in which a human character central to the story at hand (e.g., “a tourist”) was suddenly replaced by an inanimate object (e.g., “a suitcase”). Because this replacement introduced a very powerful coherence break, we expected listeners to immediately notice the anomaly and generate the standard ERP effect associated with incoherent language, the N400 effect. However, instead of the standard N400 effect, anomalous words elicited a positive ERP effect from about 500–600 ms onwards. The absence of an N400 effect suggests that subjects did not immediately notice the anomaly, and that for a few hundred milliseconds the comprehension system has converged on an apparently coherent but factually incorrect interpretation. The presence of the later ERP effect indicates that subjects were processing for comprehension and did ultimately detect the anomaly. Therefore, we take the absence of a regular N400 effect as the online manifestation of a temporary semantic illusion. Our results also show that even attentive listeners sometimes fail to notice a radical change in the nature of a story character, and therefore suggest a case of short-lived ‘semantic change deafness’ in language comprehension.

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