Abstract

To address the cerebral processing of grammar, we used whole-head high-density magnetoencephalography to record the brain's magnetic fields elicited by grammatically correct and incorrect auditory stimuli in the absence of directed attention to the stimulation. The stimuli were minimal short phrases of the Finnish language differing only in one single phoneme (word-final inflectional affix), which rendered them as either grammatical or ungrammatical. Acoustic and lexical differences were controlled for by using an orthogonal design in which the phoneme's effect on grammaticality was inverted. We found that occasional syntactically incorrect stimuli elicited larger mismatch negativity (MMN) responses than correct phrases. The MMN was earlier proposed as an index of preattentive automatic speech processing. Therefore, its modulation by grammaticality under nonattend conditions suggests that early syntax processing in the human brain may take place outside the focus of attention. Source analysis (single—dipole models and minimum-norm current estimates) indicated grammaticality dependent differential activation of the left superior temporal cortex suggesting that this brain structure may play an important role in such automatic grammar processing.

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