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Brain potentials during reading reflect word expectancy and semantic association


The neuroelectric activity of the human brain that accompanies linguistic processing can be studied through recordings of event-related potentials (e.r.p. components) from the scalp. The triggered by verbal stimuli have been related to several different aspects of language processing1. For example, the N400 component, peaking around 400 ms post-stimulus, appears to be a sensitive indicator of the semantic relationship between a word and the context in which it occurs. Words that complete sentences in a nonsensical fashion elicit much larger N400 waves than do semantically appropriate words or non-semantic irregularities in a text2,3. In the present study, were recorded in response to words that completed meaningful sentences. The amplitude of the N400 component of the e.r.p. was found to be an inverse function of the subject's expectancy for the terminal word as measured by its ‘Cloze probability’. In addition, unexpected words that were semantically related to highly expected words elicited lower N400 amplitudes. These findings suggest N400 may reflect processes of semantic priming or activation.

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Kutas, M., Hillyard, S. Brain potentials during reading reflect word expectancy and semantic association. Nature 307, 161–163 (1984).

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