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Neural evidence for the prediction of animacy features during language comprehension: Evidence from MEG and EEG Representational Similarity Analysis

By Lin Wang, Edward Wlotko, Edward Alexander, Lotte Schoot, Minjae Kim, Lena Warnke, Gina R. Kuperberg

Posted 22 Jul 2019
bioRxiv DOI: 10.1101/709394 (published DOI: 10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1733-19.2020)

It has been proposed that people can generate probabilistic predictions at multiple levels of representation during language comprehension. We used Magnetoencephalography (MEG) and Electroencephalography (EEG), in combination with Representational Similarity Analysis (RSA), to seek neural evidence for the prediction of animacy features. In two studies, MEG and EEG activity was measured as human participants (both sexes) read three-sentence scenarios. Verbs in the final sentences constrained for either animate or inanimate semantic features of upcoming nouns, and the broader discourse context constrained for either a specific noun or for multiple nouns belonging to the same animacy category. We quantified the similarity between spatial patterns of brain activity following the verbs until just before the presentation of the nouns. The MEG and EEG datasets revealed converging evidence that the similarity between spatial patterns of neural activity following animate constraining verbs was greater than following inanimate constraining verbs. This effect could not be explained by lexical-semantic processing of the verbs themselves. We therefore suggest that it reflected the inherent difference in the semantic similarity structure of the predicted animate and inanimate nouns. Moreover, the effect was present regardless of whether a specific word could be predicted, providing strong evidence for the prediction of coarse-grained semantic features that goes beyond the prediction of individual words. Significance statement Language inputs unfold very quickly during real-time communication. By predicting ahead we can give our brains a “head-start”, so that language comprehension is faster and more efficient. While most contexts do not constrain strongly for a specific word, they do allow us to predict some upcoming information. For example, following the context, “they cautioned the…”, we can predict that the next word will be animate rather than inanimate (we can caution a person, but not an object). Here we used EEG and MEG techniques to show that the brain is able to use these contextual constraints to predict the animacy of upcoming words during sentence comprehension, and that these predictions are associated with specific spatial patterns of neural activity.

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