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


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.

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

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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.

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Correspondence to Katherine A DeLong.

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

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