Allyson Ettinger · [LSLT] Searching for survivors: exploiting semantic illusions for insights into sentence processing mechanisms
Much current research in sentence processing investigates the question of how quickly, and how robustly, effects of preceding context can interact with the processing of incoming lexical items. While many effects of context are transient, observable only in brief priming effects and early ERP components, research has shown that in some cases context can have such a strong influence that we actually interpret words with meanings that they do not have. We see this in the classic “Moses Illusion”: the phenomenon of semantic anomaly going undetected even in the final sentence interpretation, as with the often-missed anomaly in “When a plane crashes on the border between two countries, where should the survivors be buried?” In such cases, people appear to arrive at final sentence interpretations that contain actual lexical mismatches with the input.
Of course, people are typically quite good at accurate sentence interpretation, and such cases of mismatch are moderately rare, facilitated by a particular confluence of circumstances. I will discuss the importance of this phenomenon and the selectivity of its generation, drawing on findings from a preliminary study, and I will discuss what this selectivity might tell us about processing mechanisms underlying these interpretations