A Direct Comparison of N400 Effects of Predictability and Incongruity in Adjective-Noun Combination

Ellen Lau, Anna Namyst, Allison Fogel, Tania Delgado

Previous work has shown that the N400 ERP component is elicited by all words, whether presented in isolation or in structured contexts, and that its amplitude is modulated by semantic association and contextual predictability. What is less clear is the extent to which the N400 response is modulated by semantic incongruity when predictability is held constant. In the current study we examine N400 modulation associated with independent manipulations of predictability and congruity in an adjective-noun paradigm that allows us to precisely control predictability through corpus counts. Our results demonstrate small N400 e ects of semantic congruity (yellow bag vs. innocent bag), and much more robust N400 effects of predictability (runny nose vs. dainty nose) under the same conditions. These data argue against unitary N400 theories according to which N400 effects of both predictability and incongruity reflect a common process such as degree of integration difficulty, as large N400 effects of predictability were observed in the absence of large N400 effects of incongruity. However, the data are consistent with some versions of unitary ‘facilitated access’ N400 theories, as well as multiple-generator accounts according to which the N400 can be independently modulated by facilitated conceptual/lexical access (as with predictability) and integration diffculty (as with incongruity, perhaps to a greater extent in full sentential contexts).