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Less is not more: Neural responses to missing and superfluous accents in context


Dimitrova,  Diana Valentinova
Neurobiology of Language Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, External Organizations;
University of Groningen;

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Dimitrova, D. V., Stowe, L. A., Redeker, G., & Hoeks, J. C. J. (2012). Less is not more: Neural responses to missing and superfluous accents in context. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 24, 2400-2418. doi:10.1162/jocn_a_00302.

Prosody, particularly accent, aids comprehension by drawing attention to important elements such as the information that answers a question. A study using ERP registration investigated how the brain deals with the interpretation of prosodic prominence. Sentences were embedded in short dialogues and contained accented elements that were congruous or incongruous with respect to a preceding question. In contrast to previous studies, no explicit prosodic judgment task was added. Robust effects of accentuation were evident in the form of an “accent positivity” (200–500 msec) for accented elements irrespective of their congruity. Our results show that incongruously accented elements, that is, superfluous accents, activate a specific set of neural systems that is inactive in case of incongruously unaccented elements, that is, missing accents. Superfluous accents triggered an early positivity around 100 msec poststimulus, followed by a right-lateralized negative effect (N400). This response suggests that redundant information is identified immediately and leads to the activation of a neural system that is associated with semantic processing (N400). No such effects were found when contextually expected accents were missing. In a later time window, both missing and superfluous accents triggered a late positivity on midline electrodes, presumably related to making sense of both kinds of mismatching stimuli. These results challenge previous findings of greater processing for missing accents and suggest that the natural processing of prosody involves a set of distinct, temporally organized neural systems.