Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
The N400 is an endogenous event-related brain potential (ERP) that is sensitive to semantic processes during language comprehension. The general question we address in this paper is which aspects of the comprehension process are manifest in the N400. The focus is on the sensitivity of the N400 to the automatic process of lexical access, or to the controlled process of lexical integration. The former process is the reflex-like and effortless behavior of computing a form representation of the linguistic signal, and of mapping this representation onto corresponding entries in the mental lexicon. The latter process concerns the integration of a spoken or written word into a higher-order meaning representation of the context within which it occurs. ERPs and reaction times (RTs) were acquired to target words preceded by semantically related and unrelated prime words. The semantic relationship between a prime and its target has been shown to modulate the amplitude of the N400 to the target. This modulation can arise from lexical access processes, reflecting the automatic spread of activation between words related in meaning in the mental lexicon. Alternatively, the N400 effect can arise from lexical integration processes, reflecting the relative ease of meaning integration between the prime and the target. To assess the impact of automatic lexical access processes on the N400, we compared the effect of masked and unmasked presentations of a prime on the N400 to a following target. Masking prevents perceptual identification, and as such it is claimed to rule out effects from controlled processes. It therefore enables a stringent test of the possible impact of automatic lexical access processes on the N400. The RT study showed a significant semantic priming effect under both unmasked and masked presentations of the prime. The result for masked priming reflects the effect of automatic spreading of activation during the lexical access process. The ERP study showed a significant N400 effect for the unmasked presentation condition, but no such effect for the masked presentation condition. This indicates that the N400 is not a manifestation of lexical access processes, but reflects aspects of semantic integration processes.