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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

January 2020, Vol. 32, No. 1, Pages 12-35
(doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01465)
© 2019 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
A Tale of Two Positivities and the N400: Distinct Neural Signatures Are Evoked by Confirmed and Violated Predictions at Different Levels of Representation
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It has been proposed that hierarchical prediction is a fundamental computational principle underlying neurocognitive processing. Here, we ask whether the brain engages distinct neurocognitive mechanisms in response to inputs that fulfill versus violate strong predictions at different levels of representation during language comprehension. Participants read three-sentence scenarios in which the third sentence constrained for a broad event structure, for example, {Agent caution animate–Patient}. High constraint contexts additionally constrained for a specific event/lexical item, for example, a two-sentence context about a beach, lifeguards, and sharks constrained for the event, {Lifeguards cautioned Swimmers}, and the specific lexical item swimmers. Low constraint contexts did not constrain for any specific event/lexical item. We measured ERPs on critical nouns that fulfilled and/or violated each of these constraints. We found clear, dissociable effects to fulfilled semantic predictions (a reduced N400), to event/lexical prediction violations (an increased late frontal positivity), and to event structure/animacy prediction violations (an increased late posterior positivity/P600). We argue that the late frontal positivity reflects a large change in activity associated with successfully updating the comprehender's current situation model with new unpredicted information. We suggest that the late posterior positivity/P600 is triggered when the comprehender detects a conflict between the input and her model of the communicator and communicative environment. This leads to an initial failure to incorporate the unpredicted input into the situation model, which may be followed by second-pass attempts to make sense of the discourse through reanalysis, repair, or reinterpretation. Together, these findings provide strong evidence that confirmed and violated predictions at different levels of representation manifest as distinct spatiotemporal neural signatures.