Behaviorally, some semantic anomalies, such as those used to demonstrate N400 effects in ERPs, are easy to detect. However, some, such as “after an air crash, where should the survivors be buried?” are difficult. The difference has to do with the extent to which the anomalous word fits the general context. We asked whether anomalies that are missed elicit an ERP that could be taken as indicating unconscious recognition, and whether both types elicit an N400 effect when they are detected. We found that difficult anomalies having a good fit to general context did not produce an N400 effect, whereas control “easy-to-detect” anomalies did. For difficult anomalies, there was no evidence for unconscious detection occurring. The results support a qualitative distinction in the way the two types of anomalies are processed, and the idea that semantic information is simply not utilized (shallow processing) when difficult anomalies are missed.

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