Dissociating activation and integration of discourse referents: Evidence from ERPs and oscillations

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.
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.
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