Jachmann, Torsten; Drenhaus, Heiner; Staudte, Maria; Crocker, Matthew W.

Influence of speakers’ gaze on situated language comprehension: Evidence from Event-Related Potentials

Brain and cognition, 135, Elsevier, pp. 103571, 2019.

Behavioral studies have shown that speaker gaze to objects in a co-present scene can influence listeners’ sentence comprehension. To gain deeper insight into the mechanisms involved in gaze processing and integration, we conducted two ERP experiments (N = 30, Age: [18, 32] and [19, 33] respectively). Participants watched a centrally positioned face performing gaze actions aligned to utterances comparing two out of three displayed objects. They were asked to judge whether the sentence was true given the provided scene.

We manipulated the second gaze cue to be either Congruent (baseline), Incongruent or Averted (Exp1)/Mutual (Exp2). When speaker gaze is used to form lexical expectations about upcoming referents, we found an attenuated N200 when phonological information confirms these expectations (Congruent). Similarly, we observed attenuated N400 amplitudes when gaze-cued expectations (Congruent) facilitate lexical retrieval. Crucially, only a violation of gaze-cued lexical expectations (Incongruent) leads to a P600 effect, suggesting the necessity to revise the mental representation of the situation. Our results support the hypothesis that gaze is utilized above and beyond simply enhancing a cued object’s prominence. Rather, gaze to objects leads to their integration into the mental representation of the situation before they are mentioned.