Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
We investigated how linguistic intention affects the time course of visual word recognition by comparing the brain's electrophysiological response to a word's lexical frequency, a well-established psycholinguistic marker of lexical access, when participants actively retrieve the meaning of the written input (semantic categorization) versus a situation where no language processing is necessary (ink color categorization). In the semantic task, the ERPs elicited by high-frequency words started to diverge from those elicited by low-frequency words as early as 120 msec after stimulus onset. On the other hand, when categorizing the colored font of the very same words in the color task, word frequency did not modulate ERPs until some 100 msec later (220 msec poststimulus onset) and did so for a shorter period and with a smaller scalp distribution. The results demonstrate that, although written words indeed elicit automatic recognition processes in the brain, the speed and quality of lexical processing critically depends on the top–down intention to engage in a linguistic task.