Brouwer, Harm; Crocker, Matthew W.

On the proper treatment of the N400 and P600 in Language comprehension

Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 2017, ISSN 1664-1078.

Event-Related Potentials (ERPs)—stimulus-locked, scalp-recorded voltage fluctuations caused by post-synaptic neural activity—have proven invaluable to the study of language comprehension. Of interest in the ERP signal are systematic, reoccurring voltage fluctuations called components, which are taken to reflect the neural activity underlying specific computational operations carried out in given neuroanatomical networks (cf. Näätänen and Picton, 1987). For language processing, the N400 component and the P600 component are of particular salience (see Kutas et al., 2006, for a review). The typical approach to determining whether a target word in a sentence leads to differential modulation of these components, relative to a control word, is to look for effects on mean amplitude in predetermined time-windows on the respective ERP waveforms, e.g., 350–550 ms for the N400 component and 600–900 ms for the P600 component. The common mode of operation in psycholinguistics, then, is to tabulate the presence/absence of N400- and/or P600-effects across studies, and to use this categorical data to inform neurocognitive models that attribute specific functional roles to the N400 and P600 component (see Kuperberg, 2007; Bornkessel-Schlesewsky and Schlesewsky, 2008; Brouwer et al., 2012, for reviews).

Here, we assert that this Waveform-based Component Structure (WCS) approach to ERPs leads to inconsistent data patterns, and hence, misinforms neurocognitive models of the electrophysiology of language processing. The reason for this is that the WCS approach ignores the latent component structure underlying ERP waveforms (cf. Luck, 2005), thereby leading to conclusions about component structure that do not factor in spatiotemporal component overlap of the N400 and the P600. This becomes particularly problematic when spatiotemporal component overlap interacts with differential P600 modulations due to task demands (cf. Kolk et al., 2003). While the problem of spatiotemporal component overlap is generally acknowledged, and occasionally invoked to account for within-study inconsistencies in the data, its implications are often overlooked in psycholinguistic theorizing that aims to integrate findings across studies. We believe WCS-centric theorizing to be the single largest reason for the lack of convergence regarding the processes underlying the N400 and the P600, thereby seriously hindering the advancement of neurocognitive theories and models of language processing.