Does the N400 directly reflect compositional sense-making?

Van Berkum, J. J. A. (2009). Does the N400 directly reflect compositional sense-making? Psychophysiology, Special Issue: Society for Psychophysiological Research Abstracts for the Forty-Ninth Annual Meeting, 46(Suppl. 1), s2.
A not uncommon assumption in psycholinguistics is that the N400 directly indexes high-level semantic integration, the compositional, word-driven construction of sentence- and discourse-level meaning in some language-relevant unification space. The various discourse- and speaker-dependent modulations of the N400 uncovered by us and others are often taken to support this 'compositional integration' position. In my talk, I will argue that these N400 modulations are probably better interpreted as only indirectly reflecting compositional sense-making. The account that I will advance for these N400 effects is a variant of the classic Kutas and Federmeier (2002, TICS) memory retrieval account in which context effects on the word-elicited N400 are taken to reflect contextual priming of LTM access. It differs from the latter in making more explicit that the contextual cues that prime access to a word's meaning in LTM can range from very simple (e.g., a single concept) to very complex ones (e.g., a structured representation of the current discourse). Furthermore, it incorporates the possibility, suggested by recent N400 findings, that semantic retrieval can also be intensified in response to certain ‘relevance signals’, such as strong value-relevance, or a marked delivery (linguistic focus, uncommon choice of words, etc). In all, the perspective I'll draw is that in the context of discourse-level language processing, N400 effects reflect an 'overlay of technologies', with the construction of discourse-level representations riding on top of more ancient sense-making technology.
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