Effects of Syntactic Interference and Animacy in Sentence Processing using Event-related Brain Potentials
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Successful comprehension of language requires the parser to put together appropriate constituents of a sentence, despite the presence of intervening constituents. The joining of appropriate constituents is often done by the retrieval of constituents of a sentence and guided by the grammatical rules of a language. Often, the retrieval of constituents is aided by other cues in the sentence. However, many a times the syntactic structure and/or semantic features of a sentence might cause interference affecting the aiding cues, and challenge the parser’s prior grammatical knowledge; thus creating momentary confusion in joining the appropriate constituents. In this study we have attempted to study the effects of syntactic interference on sentence comprehension. Syntactic structures were manipulated to match to form two levels of difficulty – High and Low. An additional manipulation of animacy (a semantic feature) was added to the sentences in both high and low syntactic interference conditions. Thus, we were able to study possible effects of semantic interference as well. Additionally, based on previous research, we have also attempted to understand possible differences in sentence comprehension as a function of working memory capacity. Contrary to the expected P600 expected as a result of syntactic violation, and the sustained negativity as a result of referential ambiguity, an N400 was observed. The N400 could reflect the role of animacy (a semantic feature) as stronger retrieval cues than syntactic structure. An evident difference was also found in comprehending sentences as a function of working memory capacity. While the low span readers showed significant effects of both syntactic interference and animacy, the high span readers showed no difference between the two. Thus, this study shows unique role of semantic features such as animacy as stronger retrieval cues; and the difference in sentence comprehension based on working memory capacity.