EEG can track the time course of successful reference resolution in small visual worlds


BACKGROUND: Previous research has shown that language comprehenders resolve reference quickly and incrementally, but not much is known about the neural processes and representations that are involved. Studies of visual short-term memory suggest that access to the representation of an item from a previously seen display is associated with a negative evoked potential at posterior electrodes contralateral to the spatial location of that item in the display. In this paper we demonstrate that resolving the reference of a noun phrase in a recently seen visual display is associated with an event-related potential that is analogous to this effect. Our design was adapted from the visual world paradigm: in each trial, participants saw a display containing 3 simple objects, followed by a question about the objects, such as Was the pink fish next to a boat?, presented word by word. Questions differed in whether the color adjective allowed the reader to identify the referent of the noun phrase or not (i.e., whether one or more objects of the named color were present). Consistent with our hypothesis, we observed that reference resolution by the adjective was associated with a negative evoked potential at posterior electrodes contralateral to spatial location of the referent, starting approximately 333 ms after the onset of the adjective. The fact that the laterality of the effect depended upon the location of the referent within the display suggests that reference resolution in visual domains involves, at some level, a modality-specific representation. In addition, the effect gives us an estimate of the time course of processing from perception of the written word to the point at which its meaning is brought into correspondence with the referential domain.

Frontiers in Psychology