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Brain Res. 2007 Dec 5;1183:109-23. Epub 2007 Sep 19.

Immediate integration of novel meanings: N400 support for an embodied view of language comprehension.

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  • 1Nijmegen Institute for Cognition and Information, Radboud University, Nijmegen, The Netherlands. <>


A substantial part of language understanding depends on our previous experiences, but part of it consists of the creation of new meanings. Such new meanings cannot be retrieved from memory but still have to be constructed. The goals of this article were: first, to explore the nature of new meaning creation, and second, to test abstract symbol theories against embodied theories of meaning. We presented context-setting sentences followed by a test sentence to which ERPs were recorded that described a novel sensible or novel senseless situation (e.g., "The boys searched for branches/bushes [sensible/senseless] with which they went drumming..."). Novel sensible contexts that were not associatively nor semantically related were matched to novel senseless contexts in terms of familiarity and semantic similarity by Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA). Abstract symbol theories like LSA cannot explain facilitation for novel sensible situations, whereas the embodied theory of Glenberg and Robertson [Glenberg, A.M., Robertson, D.A., 2000. Symbol grounding and meaning: A comparison of high-dimensional and embodied theories of meaning. Journal of Memory and Language, 43, 379-401.] in which meaning is grounded in perception and action can account for facilitation. Experiment 1 revealed an N400 effect in a sensibility judgment task. Experiment 2 demonstrated that this effect generalizes to a situation in which participants read for comprehension. Our findings support the following conclusions: First, participants can establish new meanings not stored in memory. Second, this is the first ERP study that shows that N400 is sensitive to new meanings and that these are created immediately - that is, in the same time frame as associative and semantic relations. Third, our N400 effects support embodied theories of meaning and challenge abstract symbol theories that can only discover meaningfulness by consulting stored symbolic knowledge.

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