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Brain Lang. 2003 Apr;85(1):1-36.

Structure and limited capacity in verbal working memory: a study with event-related potentials.

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  • 1Nijmegen Institute for Cognition and Information, University of Nijmegen, P.O. Box 9104, The Netherlands. kolk@nici.kun.nl


In order to test recent claims about the structure of verbal working memory, two ERP experiments with Dutch speaking participants were carried out. We compared the ERP effects of syntactic and semantic mid-sentence anomalies in subject and object relative sentences. In Experiment 1, the participants made acceptability judgments, while in Experiment 2 they read for comprehension. Syntactic anomalies concerned subject-verb disagreement, while semantic anomalies were related to implausible events (e.g., *The cat that fled from the mice ran through the room). Semantic anomalies did not elicit an N400 effect. The semantic as well as syntactic anomalies elicited P600 effects, with similar centro-parietal scalp distributions. For both kinds of anomaly, the P600 effects were modulated by syntactic complexity: they were either relatively small (Experiment 1) or absent (Experiment 2) in object relative sentences. Taken together, our results suggest that: (a) verbal working memory is a limited capacity system; (b) it is not subdivided into an interpretative and a post-interpretative component (); (c) the P600 can reflect the presence of a semantic bias in syntactically unambiguous sentences; (d) the P600 is related to language monitoring: its function is to check upon the veridicality of an unexpected (linguistic) event; (e) if such a check is made, there is no integration of the event and hence no N400 effect.

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