The neurocognitive processing of plausibility and real-world knowledge:A cross-linguistic investigation

Our knowledge about concepts and meanings is at the very heart of human cognition. In everyday life, we have to interact with our environment in a variety of different ways. Our actions are guided by what we know and believe about the world and this knowledge derives primarily from previous senso...

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Bibliographic Details
Main Author: Tune, Sarah
Contributors: Bornkessel-Schlesewsky, Ina (Prof. Dr.) (Thesis advisor)
Format: Doctoral Thesis
Published: Philipps-Universität Marburg 2014
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Summary:Our knowledge about concepts and meanings is at the very heart of human cognition. In everyday life, we have to interact with our environment in a variety of different ways. Our actions are guided by what we know and believe about the world and this knowledge derives primarily from previous sensory and perceptual experiences. The fact that we are capable of engaging with our environment in an appropriate and efficient way means that we have learnt (how) to make sense of the events and entities we are faced with in day-to-day life. We are thus able to recognise and name both physical objects and abstract concepts, to categorise and associate them based on their specific properties, to interpret other people’s intentions, and to judge cause and effect of their actions as well as our own. Moreover, the ability to represent this wealth of knowledge about the real world in the conceptualised and symbolic form of language is believed to be exclusive to humans. Our language capacity allows us to communicate with others about past and future events or to describe fictitious scenarios by combining previously acquired concepts in a novel way without the need for external stimulation. Thus language forms a primary means of interacting with those around us by allowing us to express our own thoughts and comprehend those of others. As long as language processing proceeds in an undisturbed manner, we are largely unaware of the underlying mechanisms that support the seemingly effortless interpretation of linguistic input. The importance of these processes for successful communication, however, becomes all the more apparent when language processing is disrupted, for example, by brain lesions that render semantic analysis difficult or impossible. Scientific research that aims to uncover and define cognitive or neural mechanisms underlying semantic processing is inevitably faced with the complexity and wealth of semantic relationships that need to be taken into account. In absence of noninvasive neurocognitive methods and insights gleaned from modern neurobiology, early research had a limited impact on our understanding of how semantic processing is implemented in the human brain. Traditional neurological models of language have been based primarily on lesion-deficit data, and thus supported the view that certain areas of the brain were exclusively dedicated to the processing of language-specific functions (Geschwind, 1970; Lichtheim, 1885; Wernicke, 1874). Furthermore, classical theories of sensory processing viewed the brain as a purely stimulus-driven system that retrieves and combines individual low-level aspects or features in an automated, passive and context-independent manner (Biederman, 1987; Burton & Sinclair, 1996; Hubel & Wiesel, 1965; Massaro, 1998). After a recent paradigm shift in the cognitive neurosciences, current theories of sensory processing are now based on the concept of the brain as a highly active, adaptive and dynamic device. In this sense, language comprehension, like many other higher-cognitive functions, is shaped by a flexible interaction of a number of different processes and information sources that include so-called bottom-up signals, i.e., the actual sensory input and processes related to their forward propagation, and top-down processes that generate predictions and expectations based on prior experience and perceived probabilities. Therefore, accounts that view semantic processing as a dynamic and active construction of meaning that is highly sensitive to contextual influences seem most probable from a neurobiological perspective. Results from electrophysiological and neuroimaging research on semantic analysis in sentence and discourse context have provided evidence for top-down influences from the very beginning. In addition, recent ERP results have suggested that the interaction between topdown and bottom-up information is more flexible and dynamic than previously assumed. Yet, the importance of predictions and expectations has long been neglected in models of semantic processing and language comprehension in general. Neuroimaging data have provided us with a long list of brain regions that have been implicated in different aspects of semantic analysis. We are only beginning to understand the role(s) that these regions play and how they interact to support the flexible and efficient construction of meaning. The aim of the present thesis is to gain a more comprehensive view on the computational mechanisms underlying language processing by investigating how bottom- up and top-down information and processes interactively contribute to the semantic analysis in sentences and discourse. To this end, we conducted a total of five studies that used either event-related potentials or functional neuroimaging to shed light on this matter from different perspectives. The thesis is divided into two main parts: Part I (chapters 1-5) provides an overview on previous results from electrophysiology and neuroimaging on semantic processing as well as a description and discussion of the studies conducted in the present thesis. Part II (chapters 6-9) consists of three research articles that describe and discuss the results of five experimental studies. In Part I, Chapter 2 gives a brief introduction to the event-related potential and functional neuroimaging techniques and reviews the most relevant results and theories that have emerged from studies on sentence and discourse processing. Chapter 3 highlights the research questions targeted in each of the experimental studies and describes and discusses the most relevant findings against the background established by Chapter 2. Chapters 4 and 5 conclude Part I by placing the presented results in a broader context and by briefly outlining future directions. Part II begins with a survey of the three studies reported in the subsequent chapters. Chapter 7 highlights the results of the first study, a German ERP experiment that investigated the impact of capitalisation, i.e., a purely form-based and contextually independent bottom-up manipulation, on the processing of semantic anomalies in single sentences. Chapter 8 comprises three ERP experiments that used both easy and hard to detect semantic anomalies in German and English to corroborate the assumption that the weighting of top-down and bottom-up information cues might be determined in a language-specific way. Chapter 9, the final chapter of the thesis, describes and discusses the results of the third study, in which the impact of embedding context on the required depth of semantic processing was examined using functional neuroimaging.