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

Abstract

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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: ERP waveforms and correlations between N400 amplitude and cloze probability showing that specific words were predicted during language comprehension.

References

  1. 1

    Stanovich, K.E. & West, R.F. Mechanisms of sentence context effects in reading: automatic activation and conscious attention. Mem. Cognit. 7, 77–85 (1979).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Kintsch, W. & van Dijk, T.A. Towards a model of text comprehension and production. Psychol. Rev. 85, 363–394 (1978).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Carroll, J. & Bever, T. Sentence comprehension: a case study in the relation of knowledge and perception. in Handbook of Perception, Vol. 7 (eds. Carterette, E. & Friedman, M.) 299–317 (Academic, New York, 1978).

    Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Just, M.A. & Carpenter, P.A. A theory of reading: From eye fixations to comprehension. Psychol. Rev. 87, 329–354 (1980).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Daneman, M. & Carpenter, P.A. Individual differences in integrating information between and within sentences. J. Exp. Psychol. Learn. Mem. Cogn. 9, 561–584 (1983).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Mitchell, D.C. & Green, D.W. The effects of context and content on immediate processing in reading. Q. J. Exp. Psychol. 30, 609–636 (1978).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Marslen-Wilson, W.D. Sentence perception as an interactive parallel process. Science 189, 226–228 (1975).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Altmann, G.T.M. & Steedman, M.J. Interaction with context during human sentence processing. Cognition 30, 191–238 (1988).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Pickering, M.J. Processing local and unbounded dependencies: a unified account. J. Psycholinguist. Res. 23, 323–352 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Tyler, L.K. & Marslen-Wilson, W.D. The on-line effects of semantic context on syntactic processing. J. Verb. Learn. Verb. Behav. 16, 683–692 (1977).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Traxler, M., Bybee, M. & Pickering, M. Influence of connectives on language comprehension: eye-tracking evidence for incremental interpretation. Q. J. Exp. Psychol. A 50A, 481–497 (1997).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Marslen-Wilson, W.D. & Tyler, L.K. The temporal structure of spoken language understanding. Cognition 8, 1–71 (1980).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Steedman, M. Grammar, interpretation, and processing from the lexicon. in Lexical Representation and Process (ed. Marslen-Wilson, W.D.) 463–504 (MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1989).

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Boland, J.E., Tanenhaus, M.K., Garnsey, S.M. & Carlson, G.N. Verb argument structure in parsing and interpretation: Evidence from wh-questions. J. Mem. Lang. 34, 774–806 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Tanenhaus, M., Spivey-Knowlton, M., Eberhard, K. & Sedivy, J. Integration of visual and linguistic information during spoken language comprehension. Science 268, 1632–1634 (1995).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Kutas, M. & Hillyard, S.A. Event-related brain potentials to grammatical errors and semantic anomalies. Mem. Cognit. 11, 539–550 (1983).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Kutas, M. & Hillyard, S.A. Reading senseless sentences: brain potentials reflect semantic incongruity. Science 207, 203–204 (1980).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

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

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Altmann, G.T.M. & Kamide, Y. Incremental interpretation at verbs: restricting the domain of subsequent reference. Cognition 73, 247–264 (1999).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Tanenhaus, M.K., Magnuson, J.S., Dahan, D. & Chambers, C. Eye movements and lexical access in spoken-language comprehension: evaluating a linking hypothesis between fixations and linguistic processing. J. Psycholinguist. Res. 29, 557–580 (2000).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Kamide, Y., Scheepers, C. & Altmann, G.T.M. Integration of syntactic and semantic information in predictive processing: cross-linguistic evidence from German and English. J. Psycholinguist. Res. 32, 37–55 (2003).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Chambers, C.G. & Smyth, R. Structural parallelism and discourse coherence: a test of centering theory. J. Mem. Lang. 39, 593–608 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Sedivy, J.C., Tanenhaus, M.K., Chambers, C.G. & Carlson, G.N. Achieving incremental semantic interpretation through contextual representation. Cognition 71, 109–148 (1999).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Federmeier, K.D. & Kutas, M. A rose by any other name: long-term memory structure and sentence processing. J. Mem. Lang. 41, 469–495 (1999).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Wicha, N.Y.Y., Moreno, E.M. & Kutas, M. Anticipating words and their gender: an event-related brain potential study of semantic integration, gender expectancy, and gender agreement in Spanish sentence reading. J. Cogn. Neurosci. 16, 1272–1288 (2004).

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Wicha, N.Y.Y., Bates, E.A., Moreno, E.M. & Kutas, M. Potato not Pope: human brain potentials to gender expectation and agreement in Spanish spoken sentences. Neurosci. Lett. 346, 165–168 (2003).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Van Berkum, J.J.A., Brown, C.M., Zwitserlood, P., Kooijman, V. & Hagoort, P. Anticipating upcoming words in discourse: evidence from ERPs and reading times. J. Exp. Psychol. Learn. Mem. Cogn. 31, 443–467 (2005).

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    O'Regan, K. Saccade size control in reading: evidence for the linguistic control hypothesis. Percept. Psychophys. 25, 501–509 (1979).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Kutas, M. Event-related brain potentials (ERPs) elicited during rapid serial visual presentation of congruous and incongruous sentences. Electroencephalogr. Clin. Neurophysiol. 40 (suppl.), 406–411 (1987).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Gunter, T.C., Jackson, J.L. & Mulder, G. An electrophysiological study of semantic processing in young and middle-aged academics. Psychophysiology 29, 38–54 (1992).

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    King, J.W. & Kutas, M. A brain potential whose latency indexes the length and frequency of words. CRL Newsletter 10, 1–9 (1995).

    Google Scholar 

  32. 32

    Kluender, R. & Kutas, M. Subjacency as a processing phenomenon. Lang. Cognitive Proc. 8, 573–633 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to E. De Ochoa and J. Cagle for help with data collection and to J. Elman for helpful comments on this manuscript. This research was supported by US National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grant HD22614 and National Institute on Aging grant AG08313 to M.K. and by a Center for Research in Language Training Fellowship to K.A.D.

Author information

Affiliations

Authors

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Katherine A DeLong.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

DeLong, K., Urbach, T. & Kutas, M. Probabilistic word pre-activation during language comprehension inferred from electrical brain activity. Nat Neurosci 8, 1117–1121 (2005). https://doi.org/10.1038/nn1504

Download citation

Further reading

Search

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing