Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Under adverse listening conditions, speech comprehension profits from the expectancies that listeners derive from the semantic context. However, the neurocognitive mechanisms of this semantic benefit are unclear: How are expectancies formed from context and adjusted as a sentence unfolds over time under various degrees of acoustic degradation? In an EEG study, we modified auditory signal degradation by applying noise-vocoding (severely degraded: four-band, moderately degraded: eight-band, and clear speech). Orthogonal to that, we manipulated the extent of expectancy: strong or weak semantic context (±con) and context-based typicality of the sentence-last word (high or low: ±typ). This allowed calculation of two distinct effects of expectancy on the N400 component of the evoked potential. The sentence-final N400 effect was taken as an index of the neural effort of automatic word-into-context integration; it varied in peak amplitude and latency with signal degradation and was not reliably observed in response to severely degraded speech. Under clear speech conditions in a strong context, typical and untypical sentence completions seemed to fulfill the neural prediction, as indicated by N400 reductions. In response to moderately degraded signal quality, however, the formed expectancies appeared more specific: Only typical (+con +typ), but not the less typical (+con −typ) context–word combinations led to a decrease in the N400 amplitude. The results show that adverse listening “narrows,” rather than broadens, the expectancies about the perceived speech signal: limiting the perceptual evidence forces the neural system to rely on signal-driven expectancies, rather than more abstract expectancies, while a sentence unfolds over time.