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Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience

March 1999, Vol. 11, No. 2, Pages 194-205
(doi: 10.1162/089892999563328)
© 1999 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Electrophysiological Evidence for Two Steps in Syntactic Analysis: Early Automatic and Late Controlled Processes
Article PDF (238.71 KB)

In this study we examined the properties of the processes involved in the structural analysis of sentences using event-related brain potential measures (ERP). Previous research had shown two ERP components to correlate with phrase structure violations: an early left anterior negativity (ELAN), which is assumed to reflect first-pass parsing processes, and a late parietally distributed positivity (P600), assumed to reflect second-pass parsing processes. We hypothesized that the first-pass parsing processes are highly automatic, whereas second-pass parsing processes are more controlled. To test this hypothesis we varied the proportion of correct sentences and sentences containing phrase structure violations with incorrect sentences being either of a low (20% violation) or a high (80% violation) proportion. Results showed that the early left anterior negativity was elicited and equally pronounced under both proportion conditions. By contrast, the late positivity was elicited for a low proportion of incorrect sentences only. This data pattern suggests that first-pass parsing processes are automatic, whereas second-pass parsing processes are under participants' strategic control.