Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
March 2018, Vol. 30, No. 3, Pages 381-392
© 2018 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Exploring the Organization of Semantic Memory through Unsupervised Analysis of Event-related Potentials
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Modern multivariate methods have enabled the application of unsupervised techniques to analyze neurophysiological data without strict adherence to predefined experimental conditions. We demonstrate a multivariate method that leverages priming effects on the evoked potential to perform hierarchical clustering on a set of word stimuli. The current study focuses on the semantic relationships that play a key role in the organization of our mental lexicon of words and concepts. The N400 component of the event-related potential is considered a reliable neurophysiological response that is indicative of whether accessing one concept facilitates subsequent access to another (i.e., one “primes” the other). To further our understanding of the organization of the human mental lexicon, we propose to utilize the N400 component to drive a clustering algorithm that can uncover, given a set of words, which particular subsets of words show mutual priming. Such a scheme requires a reliable measurement of the amplitude of the N400 component without averaging across many trials, which was here achieved using a recently developed multivariate analysis method based on beamforming. We validated our method by demonstrating that it can reliably detect, without any prior information about the nature of the stimuli, a well-known feature of the organization of our semantic memory: the distinction between animate and inanimate concepts. These results motivate further application of our method to data-driven exploration of disputed or unknown relationships between stimuli.