Computing and recomputing discourse models: An ERP study

Baggio, G., Van Lambalgen, M., & Hagoort, P. (2008). Computing and recomputing discourse models: An ERP study. Journal of Memory and Language, 59, 36-53. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2008.02.005.
While syntactic reanalysis has been extensively investigated in psycholinguistics, comparatively little is known about reanalysis in the semantic domain. We used event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to keep track of semantic processes involved in understanding short narratives such as ‘The girl was writing a letter when her friend spilled coffee on the paper’. We hypothesize that these sentences are interpreted in two steps: (1) when the progressive clause is processed, a discourse model is computed in which the goal state (a complete letter) is predicted to hold; (2) when the subordinate clause is processed, the initial representation is recomputed to the effect that, in the final discourse structure, the goal state is not satisfied. Critical sentences evoked larger sustained anterior negativities (SANs) compared to controls, starting around 400 ms following the onset of the sentence-final word, and lasting for about 400 ms. The amplitude of the SAN was correlated with the frequency with which participants, in an offline probe-selection task, responded that the goal state was not attained. Our results raise the possibility that the brain supports some form of non-monotonic recomputation to integrate information which invalidates previously held assumptions.
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