Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Monitoring refers to a process of quality control designed to optimize behavioral outcome. Monitoring for action errors manifests itself in an error-related negativity in event-related potential (ERP) studies and in an increase in activity of the anterior cingulate in functional magnetic resonance imaging studies. Here we report evidence for a monitoring process in perception, in particular, language perception, manifesting itself in a late positivity in the ERP. This late positivity, the P600, appears to be triggered by a conflict between two interpretations, one delivered by the standard syntactic algorithm and one by a plausibility heuristic which combines individual word meanings in the most plausible way. To resolve this conflict, we propose that the brain reanalyzes the memory trace of the perceptual input to check for the possibility of a processing error. Thus, as in Experiment 1, when the reader is presented with semantically anomalous sentences such as, “The fox that shot the poacher…,” full syntactic analysis indicates a semantic anomaly, whereas the word-based heuristic leads to a plausible interpretation, that of a poacher shooting a fox. That readers actually pursue such a word-based analysis is indicated by the fact that the usual ERP index of semantic anomaly, the so-called N400 effect, was absent in this case. A P600 effect appeared instead. In Experiment 2, we found that even when the word-based heuristic indicated that only part of the sentence was plausible (e.g., “…that the elephants pruned the trees”), a P600 effect was observed and the N400 effect of semantic anomaly was absent. It thus seems that the plausibility of part of the sentence (e.g., that of pruning trees) was sufficient to create a conflict with the implausible meaning of the sentence as a whole, giving rise to a monitoring response.