Delogu, Francesca; Drenhaus, Heiner; Crocker, Matthew W.

On the predictability of event-boundaries in discourse: an ERP investigation

Memory and Cognition, 46, pp. 315-325, 2018.

When reading a text describing an everyday activity, comprehenders build a model of the situation described that includes prior knowledge of the entities, locations, and sequences of actions that typically occur within the event. Previous work has demonstrated that such knowledge guides the processing of incoming information by making event boundaries more or less expected.

In the present ERP study, we investigated whether comprehenders’ expectations about event boundaries are influenced by how elaborately common events are described in the context. Participants read short stories in which a common activity (e.g., washing the dishes) was described either in brief or in an elaborate manner. The final sentence contained a target word referring to a more predictable action marking a fine event boundary (e.g., drying) or a less predictable action, marking a coarse event boundary (e.g., jogging). The results revealed a larger N400 effect for coarse event boundaries compared to fine event boundaries, but no interaction with description length. Between 600 and 1000 ms, however, elaborate contexts elicited a larger frontal positivity compared to brief contexts.

This effect was largely driven by less predictable targets, marking coarse event boundaries. We interpret the P600 effect as indexing the updating of the situation model at event boundaries, consistent with Event Segmentation Theory (EST). The updating process is more demanding with coarse event boundaries, which presumably require the construction of a new situation model. Electronic supplementary material The online version of this article (10.3758/s13421-017-0766-4) contains supplementary material, which is available to authorized users.