The effects of processing requirements on neurophysiological responses to spoken sentences*1
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Ten English speaking subjects listened to sentences that varied in sentential constraint (i.e., the degree to which the context of a sentence predicts the final word of that sentence) and event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded during the presentation of the final word of each sentence. In the Control condition subjects merely listened to the sentences. In the Orthographic processing condition subjects merely listened to the sentences. In the Orthographic processing condition subjects decided, following each sentence, whether a given letter had been present in the final word of the preceding sentence. In the Phonological processing condition the subjects judged whether a given speech sound was contained in the terminal word. In the Semantic processing condition subjects determined whether the final word was a member of a given semantic category. A previous finding in the visual modality that the N400 component was larger in amplitude for low constraint sentence terminations than for high was extended to the auditory modality. It was also found that the amplitude of a N200-like response was similarly responsive to contextual constraint. The hypothesis that N400 amplitude would vary significantly with the depth of processing of the terminal word was not supported by the data. The "N200" recorded in this language processing context showed the classic frontocentral distribution of the N200. The N400 to spoken sentences had a central/centroparietal distribution similar to the N400 in visual modality experiments. It is suggested that the N400 obtained in these sentence contexts reflects an automatic semantic processing of words that occurs even when semantic analysis is not required to complete a given task. The cooccurrence and topographical dissimilarity of the "N200" and N400 suggest that the N400 may not be a delayed or a generic N200.
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