Häuser, Katja; Demberg, Vera; Kray, Jutta

Effects of aging and dual-task demands on the comprehension of less expected sentence continuations: Evidence from pupillometry

Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2019, ISSN 1664-1078.

Prior studies on language processing in aging have shown that older adults experience integration difficulties for contextually unpredictable target words (as indicated by low cloze probabilities in prior ratings), and that such comprehension difficulties are more likely to occur under more demanding processing conditions (e.g., dual-task situations). However, these effects have primarily been demonstrated for conditions when cloze probability of the linguistic stimuli was very low. The question we asked here was do dual-task demands also impair comprehension when target words provide a good, but not perfect, match with prior context? We used a dual-task design, consisting of a sentence comprehension and secondary motor tracking task. Critical target words were those which were not perfectly predictable based on context (words with a cloze probability of 0.7), as opposed to words that were near perfectly predictable based on context (cloze probabilities of 0.99). As a measure to index online processing difficulty for less expected target words, we took into account participants’ pupil size. Separate mixed effects models were fit for language comprehension, motor tracking, and pupil size, showing the following: (1) dual-task demands led to age-related comprehension difficulties when target words were less expected (as opposed to very highly expected), (2) integration difficulty in older adults was related to cognitive overload as less expected sentence continuations progressed over time, resulting in behavioral trade-offs between language comprehension and motor tracking, and (3) lower levels of working memory were predictive of whether or not older adults experienced cognitive overload when processing less expected words. In sum, more demanding processing conditions lead to comprehension impairments when words are highly unpredictable based on context, as many prior studies showed. Comprehension impairments among older individuals also occur for conditions when words provide a good, but not perfect, match with prior context. Higher working memory capacity can alleviate such impairments in older adults, thereby suggesting that only high-WM older adults have sufficient cognitive resources to pre-activate words that complete a sentence context plausibly, but not perfectly.