Relative to abstract words, concrete words typically elicit faster response times and larger N400 and N700 event-related potential (ERP) brain responses. These effects have been interpreted as reflecting the denser links to associated semantic information of concrete words and their recruitment of visual imagery processes. Here, we examined whether there are ERP differences between concrete and abstract stimuli controlled for a large number of factors including context availability (i.e., richness of semantic associations) and imageability. We found that abstract words elicited faster behavioral responses but that concrete words still elicited larger N400 and N700 responses. We propose that once all other factors, including imageability and context availability are controlled, abstract words may trigger a larger number of superficial linguistic associations that can be quickly used for response decisions. The ERP differences, however, would index the greater semantic processing (integration of multimodal information) for concrete than abstract words during meaning activation.
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