The Default Computation of Negated Meanings

J Cogn Neurosci. 2016 Dec;28(12):1980-1986. doi: 10.1162/jocn_a_01016. Epub 2016 Jul 26.


Negation is a fundamental component of human reasoning and language. Yet, current neurocognitive models, conceived to account for the cortical representation of meanings (e.g., writing), hardly accommodate the representation of negated meanings (not writing). One main hypothesis, known as the two-step model, proposes that, for negated meanings, the corresponding positive representation is first fully activated and then modified to reflect negation. Recast in neurobiological terms, this model predicts that, in the initial stage of semantic processing, the neural representation of a stimulus' meaning is indistinguishable from the neural representation of that meaning following negation. Although previous work has shown that pragmatic and task manipulations can favor or hinder a two-step processing, we just do not know how the brain processes an utterance as simple as "I am not writing." We implemented two methodologies based on chronometric TMS to measure motor excitability (Experiment 1) and inhibition (Experiment 2) as physiological markers of semantic access to action-related meanings. We used elementary sentences (Adverb + Verb) and a passive reading task. For the first time, we defined action word-related motor activity in terms of increased excitability and concurrently reduced inhibition. Moreover, we showed that this pattern changes already in the earliest stage of semantic processing, when action meanings were negated. Negation modifies the neural representation of the argument in its scope, as soon as semantic effects are observed in the brain.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Electromyography
  • Evoked Potentials, Motor
  • Female
  • Frontal Lobe / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Male
  • Motor Activity / physiology
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology
  • Recognition, Psychology / physiology
  • Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation
  • Young Adult