Getting real about semantic illusions: rethinking the functional role of the P600 in language comprehension

Brain Res. 2012 Mar 29;1446:127-43. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2012.01.055. Epub 2012 Feb 2.


In traditional theories of language comprehension, syntactic and semantic processing are inextricably linked. This assumption has been challenged by the 'semantic illusion effect' found in studies using event related brain potentials. Semantically anomalous sentences did not produce the expected increase in N400 amplitude but rather one in P600 amplitude. To explain these findings, complex models have been devised in which an independent semantic processing stream can arrive at a sentence interpretation that may differ from the interpretation prescribed by the syntactic structure of the sentence. We review five such multi-stream models and argue that they do not account for the full range of relevant results because they assume that the amplitude of the N400 indexes some form of semantic integration. Based on recent evidence we argue that N400 amplitude might reflect the retrieval of lexical information from memory. On this view, the absence of an N400-effect in semantic illusion sentences can be explained in terms of priming. Furthermore, we suggest that semantic integration, which has previously been linked to the N400 component, might be reflected in the P600 instead. When combined, these functional interpretations result in a single-stream account of language processing that can explain all of the Semantic Illusion data.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Comprehension*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Illusions*
  • Semantics*