The predictive nature of language comprehension

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This dissertation explores the hypothesis that predictive processing--the access and construction of internal representations in advance of the external input that supports them--plays a central role in language comprehension. Linguistic input is frequently noisy, variable, and rapid, but it is also subject to numerous constraints. Predictive processing could be a particularly useful approach in language comprehension, as predictions based on the constraints imposed by the prior context could allow computation to be speeded and noisy input to be disambiguated.

Decades of previous research have demonstrated that the broader sentence context has an effect on how new input is processed, but less progress has been made in determining the mechanisms underlying such contextual effects. This dissertation is aimed at advancing this second goal, by using both behavioral and neurophysiological methods to motivate predictive or top-down interpretations of contextual effects and to test particular hypotheses about the nature of the predictive mechanisms in question.

The first part of the dissertation focuses on the lexical-semantic predictions made possible by word and sentence contexts. MEG and fMRI experiments, in conjunction with a meta-analysis of the previous neuroimaging literature, support the claim that an ERP effect classically observed in response to contextual manipulations--the N400 effect--reflects facilitation in processing due to lexical-semantic predictions, and that these predictions are realized at least in part through top-down changes in activity in left posterior middle temporal cortex, the cortical region thought to represent lexical-semantic information in long-term memory,. The second part of the dissertation focuses on syntactic predictions. ERP and reaction time data suggest that the syntactic requirements of the prior context impacts processing of the current input very early, and that predicting the syntactic position in which the requirements can be fulfilled may allow the processor to avoid a retrieval mechanism that is prone to similarity-based interference errors.

In sum, the results described here are consistent with the hypothesis that a significant amount of language comprehension takes place in advance of the external input, and suggest future avenues of investigation towards understanding the mechanisms that make this possible.