Article abstract

Nature Neuroscience 8, 1117 - 1121 (2005)
Published online: 10 July 2005 | doi:10.1038/nn1504

Probabilistic word pre-activation during language comprehension inferred from electrical brain activity

Katherine A DeLong1, Thomas P Urbach1 & Marta Kutas1,2

Despite the numerous examples of anticipatory cognitive processes at micro and macro levels in many animal species, the idea that anticipation of specific words plays an integral role in real-time language processing has been contentious. Here we exploited a phonological regularity of English indefinite articles ('an' precedes nouns beginning with vowel sounds, whereas 'a' precedes nouns beginning with consonant sounds) in combination with event-related brain potential recordings from the human scalp to show that readers' brains can pre-activate individual words in a graded fashion to a degree that can be estimated from the probability that each word is given as a continuation for a sentence fragment offline. These findings are evidence that readers use the words in a sentence (as cues to their world knowledge) to estimate relative likelihoods for upcoming words.

  1. Department of Cognitive Science, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093, USA.
  2. Department of Neurosciences, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093, USA.

Correspondence to: Katherine A DeLong1 e-mail:


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