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Context modulations of neurocognitive processes evoked by counterintuitive meanings.

Sunday, October 02nd,   2011 [11:30 - 13:10]

SY_30. Context modulations of neurocognitive processes evoked by counterintuitive meanings

Aristei, S. & Sommer, W.

Humbold Universität zu Berlin

Meaning often depends on the context in which it is expressed. We present four studies about context-induced modulation of neurocognitive processes associated with semantic integration of counterintuitive ideas. We first report a comparison of religious and profane counterintuitive ideas. Using the N400 component of the event-related potentials, it will be shown that counterintuitions in religious context are treated as less anomalous and easier to integrate into the semantic cognitive system than similarly counterintuitive profane ideas. However, religiosity is not the only property influencing the processing of semantic anomalies. As demonstrated in the second study, context emotionality seems to facilitate the semantic integration of so-called minimally counterintuitive concepts. For instance, within emotionally neutral contexts concepts such as a “flying mule”, typical of fairy tales and other phantasy stories, are recognized and processed as semantic anomalies (N400 effect) but not so within negative emotional contexts (N400 effect absent). Moreover, as shown next, word meaning can be rapidly reversed when interpreted figuratively rather than literally, for example in the ironic statement “That was great”. Ironic expressions do not necessarily induce an increased semantic integration difficulty (N400 effects absent); however, understanding their meaning seems to involve late inferential processes (P600 effects). Similarly, reported in the final presentation, the two related concepts in oxymora, e.g. “real dream”, are integrated in novel metaphorical meanings after an initial semantic analysis, as indicated by later frontal positive ERP effects (500-900 ms).Thus, various semantic anomalies that are part of our everyday language are not always processed like classic semantic expectancy violations. On the contrary, they can be accepted and integrated into our semantic system, depending on discourse context. Importantly, these anomalies elicit different brain activities, probably reflecting the integration work of the semantic system.



SY_30.1 - Contrasting meanings in minimal noun-adjective pairs: ERP correlates of Oxymora interpretation

Molinaro, N. , Carreiras, M. & Andoni Duñabeitia, J.

Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language, Donostia, Universidad de La Laguna, Bilbao, Spain

In this study we evaluated the neurocognitive processes involved in the interpretation of paradoxical figures of speech. Oxymora are figures of speech in which two words whose meaning is antithetic are merged. The most common form of oxymoron involves adjective-noun combinations (e.g. cold fire or real dream). While oxymora are literally paradoxical, pleonasms are noun-adjective pairs in which similar meanings are redundantly expressed (burning fire). In a first ERP experiment 20 participants were visually presented with word by word Spanish sentences containing noun-adjectives Oxymora (Estaba completamente confusa por el sueño real de la noche anterior. - I was completely confused by the real dream from last night), compared to literally Neuter sentences (funny dream) and semantic Violations (!expert dream). The Violation condition elicited an enhanced N400 compared to the other two conditions, that did not differ around 400 ms. The Oxymoron condition elicited a larger frontal positive effect (500-900 ms) compared to the other conditions. In a second experiment 20 Spanish speakers read sentences containing Pleonasms (unreal dream; plus Neuter and Violation). While Pleonasms and Neuter sentences did not differ around 400 ms the Violation caused a N400 effect. The Pleonasm elicited a short-living (500-650 ms) increased frontal positive component compared the other conditions. The two experiments suggest that understanding oxymora requires more than the simple activation and combination of semantic features (mirrored in the N400). Only after this initial semantic analysis, related concepts are integrated in activating novel metaphorical meanings: while pleonasms trigger short-living late positivities, oxymora trigger long-lasting positivities maybe due to the antonymic semantic relation between noun and adjective.

SY_30.2 - Isn’t it ironic? Neurocognitive correlates of figurative language processing

Regel, S. , Gunter, T. C. & Friederici, A. D.

Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences, Leipzig, Germany

The comprehension of figurative language, especially irony, raises some interesting questions onto how implied meanings are processed. For instance, the sentence ‘That’s great’ can be interpreted either literally (i.e. meaning something positive), or ironically (i.e. conveying the speaker’s disappointment about an annoying event) depending on the context of this utterance. In order to comprehend an ironic sentence different, and often opposite, meanings beyond the literal sentence meaning need to be processed. In two experiments using event-related brain potentials (ERPs) we investigated the neurocognitive processes involved in the processing of ironic and literal sentences. In Experiment 1, participants listened to short stories consisting of three context sentences followed by a target sentence like ‚That’s really bland’, which achieved either an ironic or literal meaning by the foregoing contextual information. ERPs at the target sentence’s final word revealed a large late positivity (i.e. P600 component) but no N400 component for irony compared to equivalent literal sentences. In Experiment 2, this ERP pattern was replicated for the visual modality. Moreover, the observed P600 component appeared to be most robustly associated with irony processing since it was neither affected by task demands (comprehension task vs. passive reading), nor by probability of stimulus occurrence. Thus, the current findings suggest that the increasing P600 amplitude for irony is related to the processing of implied meanings, and might be a reflection of pragmatic interpretation processes. Comprehending figurative language does not necessarily evoke a semantic integration difficulty (absence of an N400 component), but rather seems to involve late inferential processes for understanding ironic meanings (presence of a P600 component). It appears that in the case of irony, the processing of implied meanings does not require a rejection of literal sentence meanings but rather a computation of appropriate sentence meanings.

SY_30.3 - Contextualizing religious counterintuitive ideas: an ERP approach

Fondevila, S. 2 , Martín-Loeches, M. 2, 3 , Jiménez-Ortega, L. 2, 3 , Casado, P. 2, 3 , Fernández Hernández, A. 2 & Sommer, W. 1

1 Humbold Universität zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany
2 Center for Human Evolution and Behaviour, UCM-ISCIII, Madrid, Spain
3 Complutense University of Madrid, Madrid, Spain

Cognitive approaches generally accept that religion, far from being an extraordinary set of facts, constitute a by-product of normal cognition. The cultural success of religious ideas has been explained as a function of their minimally counterintuitive nature, which makes them highly appealing for better recall and transmission. Thus, religious concepts challenge certain features related to intuitive core knowledge while keeping intact other tacit assumptions. However, there are also many culturally successful concepts that are counterintuitive but clearly profane. In the present experiment we addressed the question how both counterintuitive religious and profane ideas are integrated into the semantic system by using the N400 semantic component of the event related brain potentials as a measure of semantic incongruity or counterintuitiveness. Religious ideas were collected from various mythologies and religious corpora building up sentences where counterintuition appeared in the last word. The intuitive and profane sentences were elaborated by changing the last word of the religious sentences. Participants with low degree of religiosity performed a semantic judgment task based on plausibility while their brain activity was recorded. Results showed a modulation of the N400 amplitude by counterintuitiveness with a typical centroparietal scalp distribution. The main finding was a significantly larger amplitude of the N400 for the profane as compared to the religious counterintuitive ideas, the latter also displaying a larger N400 amplitude as compared to intuitive sentences. Furthermore, behavioural data showed greater difficulty in rejecting religious ideas as counterintuitive (unacceptable) than profane ones. Consequently, counterintuitive religious ideas appear as less anomalous, more plausible and easier to integrate into the semantic cognitive system and thus, only minimally counterintuitive even if they imply clear violations of core knowledge.

SY_30.4 - Neurocognitive correlates of minimally counterintuitive concepts and their modulation by context affectivity

Aristei, S. 1 , Nehrlich, T. 2 , Knoop, C. 2 , Sommer, W. 1 , Lubrich, O. 2 , Jacobs, A. 2 & Abdel Rahman, R. 1

1 Humbold Universität zu Berlin, Berlin, Germany
2 Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin, Germany

Concepts minimally violating word core knowledge, i.e. minimally counterintuitive concepts (MCI), are special cases of semantic violations. These concepts are characterized by a semantic feature belonging to a different category while maintaining all properties of its own category (e.g. smiling trees blossom). MCIs are better remembered than non-violating or bizarre concepts. This mnemonic advantage is assumed to be one of the mechanisms responsible for the cultural success of narratives involving MCIs (e.g. fairy tales). Our study is the first attempt to understand how our neurocognitive system copes with MCIs at first encounter. Two issues were of central interest: first, whether MCIs involve different cognitive processes than other semantic violations; and second, whether emotional context modulates MCI processing. We recorded ERPs during the reading of sentences containing MCIs (e.g. a barren tree smiles), semantic expectancy violations (e.g. a barren tree blossoms), and non-violating concepts (e.g. a barren tree breaks down). Each sentence was preceded by a neutral or an emotionally negative context. MCIs elicited a long lasting N400 effect, and the effect was reduced by the negative emotional context. In contrast, semantic expectancy violations elicited a larger P600 than the other conditions, in absence of N400 effects. Furthermore, the P600 effect was enhanced by the negative emotional rather than the neutral context. Our results suggest that MCIs and semantic violations are differentially processed. MCIs are recognized and processed as semantically anomalous at earlier stages than semantic expectancy violations. Semantic expectancy violations, conversely, appear to be initially processed as semantically coherent (no N400 effect) and only later to be re-analyzed and possibly repaired (P600). Most interesting, context affectivity appears to reduce counterintuition but to make semantic expectancy violations more costly. In conclusion, cognitive processing of MCIs differs from semantic expectancy violations and is differentially modulated by the affective connotation of the context.

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