Event-related brain potentials index cue-based retrieval interference during sentence comprehension

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.
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.
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