Abstract

We present results from a study demonstrating that high- and low-span listeners show qualitatively different brain responses when comprehending simple active sentences. Participants listened to naturally produced sentences in three conditions in which the plausibility of thematic relations was manipulated, for instance: The dog(1)/The poet(2)/The box(3) is biting the mailman. Event-related potentials were recorded to the first noun, the verb, and the second noun in all three conditions. In (2), the thematic relations between the words in the sentence are less expected given our world knowledge, and this resulted in an N400 effect of semantic processing difficulty to the second noun for both high- and low-span subjects. In (3), the inanimate first noun cannot be the agent of the verb. Only high-span subjects showed an effect of animacy on the sentence-initial nouns, evident from a larger anterior negative shift to inanimate than animate nouns. Furthermore, to the thematically violated verbs (3), low-span subjects showed an N400, whereas high-span subjects generated a P600. We suggest that this P600 effect to the thematically violated verb may be related to processing costs resulting from a conflict between the provisional thematic roles assigned as a function of the inanimate sentence-initial noun, and the actual (animate) agent required by the verb. We further argue that low-span subjects lag behind those with high span in their use of animacy, but not real-world knowledge in the on-line computation of thematic roles in spoken language comprehension.

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