Theoretical accounts of the N400 are divided as to whether the amplitude of the N400 response to a stimulus reflects the extent to which the stimulus was predicted, the extent to which the stimulus is semantically similar to its preceding context, or both. We use state-of-the-art machine learning tools to investigate which of these three accounts is best supported by the evidence. GPT-3, a neural language model trained to compute the conditional probability of any word based on the words that precede it, was used to operationalize contextual predictability. In particular, we used an information theoretical construct known as surprisal (the negative logarithm of the conditional probability). Contextual semantic similarity was operationalized by using two high-quality co-occurrence-derived vector-based meaning representations for words: GloVe and fastText. The cosine between the vector representation of the sentence frame and final word was used to derive contextual cosine similarity estimates. A series of regression models were constructed, where these variables, along with cloze probability and plausibility ratings, were used to predict single trial N400 amplitudes recorded from healthy adults as they read sentences whose final word varied in its predictability, plausibility, and semantic relationship to the likeliest sentence completion. Statistical model comparison indicated GPT-3 surprisal provided the best account of N400 amplitude and suggested that apparently disparate N400 effects of expectancy, plausibility, and contextual semantic similarity can be reduced to variations in the predictability of words. The results are argued to support predictive coding in the human language network.

This content is only available as a PDF.

Author notes

Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

Handling Editor: Alessandro Lopopolo

This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. For a full description of the license, please visit