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

When a look is enough: Neurophysiological correlates of referential speaker gaze in situated comprehension

Cognition, 236, pp. 105449, 2023, ISSN 0010-0277.

Behavioral studies have shown that speaker gaze to objects in a co-present scene can influence listeners’ expectations about how the utterance will unfold. These findings have recently been supported by ERP studies that linked the underlying mechanisms of the integration of speaker gaze with an utterance meaning representation to multiple ERP components. This leads to the question, however, as to whether speaker gaze should be considered part of the communicative signal itself, such that the referential information conveyed by gaze can help listeners not only form expectations but also to confirm referential expectations induced by the prior linguistic context. In the current study, we investigated this question by conducting an ERP experiment (N=24, Age:[19,31]), in which referential expectations were established by linguistic context together with several depicted objects in the scene. Those expectations then could be confirmed by subsequent speaker gaze that preceded the referential expression. Participants were presented with a centrally positioned face performing gaze actions aligned to utterances comparing two out of three displayed objects, with the task to judge whether the sentence was true given the provided scene. We manipulated the gaze cue to be either Present (toward the subsequently named object) or Absent preceding contextually Expected or Unexpected referring nouns. The results provided strong evidence for gaze as being treated as an integral part of the communicative signal: While in the absence of gaze, effects of phonological verification (PMN), word meaning retrieval (N400) and sentence meaning integration/evaluation (P600) were found on the unexpected noun, in the presence of gaze effects of retrieval (N400) and integration/evaluation (P300) were solely found in response to the pre-referent gaze cue when it was directed toward the unexpected referent with attenuated effects on the following referring noun.