Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2012

Document Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)

Department

Psychology & Neuroscience

First Advisor

Albert Kim

Second Advisor

Akira Miyake

Third Advisor

Tim Curran

Abstract

Using Event Related Potentials (ERPs), we investigated how the elicitation of two important language-related ERP components, the N400 and P600, varied across a sample of University undergraduates. Using stimuli adapted from Kim and Osterhout (2005), we examined whether subjects varied in the ERPs they generated while reading sentences containing animacy violations ("The dusty tabletops were devouring...") as well as similar sentences containing so-called "semantic attraction" situations ("the hearty meal was devouring...") in which syntactic cues indicated that the subject noun was the agent of the sentence, while semantic cues indicated that the subject would be a better fit for the theme role. Replicating Kim & Osterhout (2005), we observed an N400 in the grand-average ERPs for sentences containing animacy violations, and a P600 for sentences containing semantic attraction situations. We then examined the extent to which individual subjects conformed to this grand-average pattern by developing a measure of the tendency of each subject to show either a P600 or N400 in response to each type of sentence. By correlating this measure with subjects performance on a number of behavioral tasks, we found that participants scoring higher on a task of Verbal Working Memory Updating were more likely to show a P600 in response to animacy violations, while lower scoring subjects tended to show an N400 effect. We did not find any relationship between our behavioral variables and ERPs recorded in response to semantic attraction situations. We discuss how the ability to update verbal WM may be crucial for both syntactic and semantic processing of a sentence, and conclude that better updaters are more capable of updating both types of information when encountering unexpected situations such as animacy violations.

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