Words representing concrete concepts are processed more quickly and efficiently than words representing abstract concepts. Concreteness effects have also been observed in studies using event-related brain potentials (ERPs). The aim of this study was to examine concrete and abstract words using both reaction time (RT) and ERP measurements to determine (1) at what point in the stream of cognitive processing concreteness effects emerge and (2) how different types of cognitive operations influence these concreteness effects. Three groups of subjects performed a sentence verification task in which the final word of each sentence was concrete or abstract. For each group the truthfulness judgment required either (1) image generation, (2) a semantic decision, or (3) evaluation of surface characteristics. Concrete and abstract words produced similar RTs and ERPs in the surface task, suggesting that postlexical semantic processing is necessary to elicit concreteness effects. In both the semantic and imagery tasks, RTs were shorter for concrete than for abstract words. This difference was greatest in the imagery task. Also, in both of these tasks concrete words elicited more negative ERPs than abstract words between 300 and 550 msec (N400). This effect was widespread across the scalp and may reflect activation in a linguistic semantic system common to both concrete and abstract words. ERPs were also more negative for concrete than abstract words between 550 and 800 msec. This effect was more frontally distributed and was most evident in the imagery task. We propose that this later anterior effect represents a distinct ERP component (N700) that is sensitive to the use of mental imagery. The N700 may reflect the access of specific characteristics of the imaged item or activation in a working memory system specific to mental imagery. These results also support the extended dual-coding hypothesis that superior associative connections and the use of mental imagery both contribute to processing advantages for concrete words over abstract words.

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