A lexical basis for N400 context effects: Evidence from MEG

Ellen Lau, Diogo Almeida, Paul Hines, David Poeppel

The electrophysiological response to words during the ‘N400’ time window (approximately 300–500 ms post-onset) is affected by the context in which the word is presented, but whether this effect reflects the impact of context on access of the stored lexical information itself or, alternatively, post-access integration processes is still an open question with substantive theoretical consequences. One challenge for integration accounts is that contexts that seem to require different levels of integration for incoming words (i.e., sentence frames vs. prime words) have similar effects on the N400 component measured in ERP. In this study we compare the effects of these different context types directly, in a within-subject design using MEG, which provides a better opportunity for identifying topographical differences between electrophysiological components, due to the minimal spatial distortion of the MEG signal. We find a qualitatively similar contextual effect for both sentence frame and prime-word contexts, although the effect is smaller in magnitude for shorter word prime contexts. Additionally, we observe no difference in response amplitude between sentence endings that are explicitly incongruent and target words that are simply part of an unrelated pair. These results suggest that the N400 effect does not reflect semantic integration difficulty. Rather, the data are consistent with an account in which N400 reduction reflects facilitated access of lexical information.