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Annu Rev Psychol. 2011;62:621-47. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.093008.131123.

Thirty years and counting: finding meaning in the N400 component of the event-related brain potential (ERP).

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1
Department of Cognitive Science, Center for Research in Language, Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind, University of California, San Diego, California 92093, USA. mkutas@ucsd.edu

Abstract

We review the discovery, characterization, and evolving use of the N400, an event-related brain potential response linked to meaning processing. We describe the elicitation of N400s by an impressive range of stimulus types--including written, spoken, and signed words or pseudowords; drawings, photos, and videos of faces, objects, and actions; sounds; and mathematical symbols--and outline the sensitivity of N400 amplitude (as its latency is remarkably constant) to linguistic and nonlinguistic manipulations. We emphasize the effectiveness of the N400 as a dependent variable for examining almost every aspect of language processing and highlight its expanding use to probe semantic memory and to determine how the neurocognitive system dynamically and flexibly uses bottom-up and top-down information to make sense of the world. We conclude with different theories of the N400's functional significance and offer an N400-inspired reconceptualization of how meaning processing might unfold.

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