Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
This study examined neural activity associated with establishing causal relationships across sentences during on-line comprehension. ERPs were measured while participants read and judged the relatedness of three-sentence scenarios in which the final sentence was highly causally related, intermediately related, and causally unrelated to its context. Lexico-semantic co-occurrence was matched across the three conditions using a Latent Semantic Analysis. Critical words in causally unrelated scenarios evoked a larger N400 than words in both highly causally related and intermediately related scenarios, regardless of whether they appeared before or at the sentence-final position. At midline sites, the N400 to intermediately related sentence-final words was attenuated to the same degree as to highly causally related words, but otherwise the N400 to intermediately related words fell in between that evoked by highly causally related and intermediately related words. No modulation of the late positivity/P600 component was observed across conditions. These results indicate that both simple and complex causal inferences can influence the earliest stages of semantically processing an incoming word. Further, they suggest that causal coherence, at the situation level, can influence incremental word-by-word discourse comprehension, even when semantic relationships between individual words are matched.