Review of When Peanuts Fall in Love: N400 Evidence for the Power of Discourse

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Review of When Peanuts Fall in Love:
N400 Evidence for the Power of Discourse

PSC 132 – Language and Cognition

In the article When Peanuts Fall in Love: N400 Evidence for the Power of Discourse, Nieuwland and Van Berkum addressed the effects of discourse level context and real-world knowledge on sentence level language cognition. More specifically, they addressed the how the brain comprehends fictional stories in which inanimate objects act in an animate fashion (e. g. a dancing peanut). The researchers’ aim was to examine how the brain handles stories that are internally coherent yet externally impossible. They addressed how we can read and enjoy stories such as Alice in Wonderland, despite the many animacy violations. For example, based on real-world knowledge, our brain knows that a deck of cards cannot ‘paint the roses red’ and a girl cannot hold a conversation with a clock. And yet we can read a story about such events and comprehend it as if it were feasible. The article begins by addressing several past theories about how the brain processes these violations. The “two-step” model theorizes that local semantics at the sentence level cannot be overruled by the larger discourse of a paragraph or story (e.g. Millis & Just, 1994). Therefore, animacy violations will always require more processing, shown through an N400 effect after the violation. The opposing theory is more interactive, a “single-step” model (e.g. Trueswell & Tanenhaus, 1994). This theory states that local semantic cues do not take precedence over globally supplied contextual clues; therefore animacy violations within a discourse may not be any more difficult to integrate. To address these issues, the researchers used event related potentials (ERPs) to monitor brain activity. Specifically, they used EEGs to monitor for an N400 effect (i.e., a negative shift in the waveforms that began around 300 ms and peak around 400 ms), in order to determine if it is possible for contextual information in a discourse to overrule a semantic and animacy violation within a sentence. The N400 amplitude has been shown to be inversely affected by the semantic compatibility of a given word and its context; the more cognitive effort is involved in integrating a word into an ongoing context, the larger the N400 amplitude that will be elicited by that word. The researchers used the N400 to test whether sentence level violations could be overruled by a larger discourse, much like the experiment by Nirit, et al (2002), although that experiment did not use animacy violations, which are a more distinct violation of real-world knowledge rather than simply a semantic violation. In order to test their theory, the researchers used two separate experiments oriented towards different findings. In the first experiment, the researchers constructed sixty naturally spoken Dutch stories, each of which were six sentences long and involved either a woman and a man or a woman and an inanimate object (e.g., a yacht). In the inanimate condition, each sentence contained an animacy violation (the control condition contained no such violations). However in sentences one, three, and five, the sentences contained a selection restriction violation, so those sentences were used for evaluation. Thirty of these animate stories and thirty inanimate stories were mixed in with ninety filler stories. The participants were thirty-one right handed college students, all native Dutch speakers with no neurological impairment. Participants’ only task was to sit still and listen to the recording of the stories told by the same female researcher. The participants EEGs were recorded from thirty standard scalp locations while they were listening to the stories, with ocular and muscular artifacts corrected. The ERPs were time-locked to a 300-600ms time window after the critical word. The second experiment was set up in a similar fashion. Sixty stories were...
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