29th European Summer School in Logic, Language, and Information
University of Toulouse (France), 17-28 July, 2017

Bridging language processing data and formal theories of meaning: event-related brain potentials as a tool of investigating semantic and pragmatic theories

Maria Spychalska

Language and Computation (Foundational)

First week, from 14:00 to 15:30, room H


Over the last few decades electroencephalography (EEG) has become a popular tool of investigating linguistic processing and has also been extensively applied to the study of semantic and pragmatic theories. Yet, the interpretation of the results of EEG experiments remains debated, especially their relevance for formal theories of meaning. On the one hand, it often is difficult to formulate clear predictions for semantic and pragmatic theories, on the other hand, the theoretical interpretation of the activations observed with EEG is not fully understood. As a result, the neurolinguistic and formal semantic/pragmatic communities remain still rather disjoint. In this course, I aim at bridging this gap. I provide a thorough introduction to the method of EEG, accessible to everyone interested in the experimental research on language. Focusing primarily on the application of EEG (in particular even-related potentials) in the area of semantics and pragmatics, I aim at a critical discussion of the role of EEG in this field, its methodological aspects and limitations.

Preliminary schedule:

Session 1. Introduction: Why would one use EEG in the investigation of semantics/pragmatics/syntax interfaces? In this session I provide a general introduction to the method of event-related potentials and characterize the most important ERP components (N400, P600, P300, (E)LAN, sustained negativities). We discuss the advantages and disadvantages of EEG compared to other methods, as well as the interpretation of the observed effects for the tested hypotheses.

Session 2. Methodology: Basic know-how about planning an ERP experiment. This methodological session will cover the following topics: (i) Precautions when planning an EEG experiment compared to planning behavioral experiments; (ii) The comparison of different studies with respect to their methodological accuracy; (iii) Data handling: preprocessing the EEG data, statistical analysis.

Session 3. The N400 paradigm: What does N400 tell us about the linguistic meaning? I start with the discovery of the N400 component, provide a selective review of N400 studies, explore the sensitivity of N400 to various factors, discuss the theories of its functional role and briefly present the N400 effects evoked by non-linguistic stimuli.

Session 4. TheP600: The syntax/semantics interface and the semantic illusions. We discuss late positivities observed in various contexts: in response to syntactic errors (syntactic positive shift) as well as semantic incongruences (“semantic” P600). We explore studies on the so-called semantic illusions and review the theories of the functional role of the P600.

Session 5. One step further: compositionality and the semantics/pragmatics interface. In this last session we will discuss the application of EEG to the study of such linguistic phenomena, as meaning enrichment, implicatures, coercion and defeasible reasoning.

Prerequisites: The course is intended for all students interested in neurolinguistic methods. It provides an overview of the current state-of-arts in the ERP linguistic research. No specialized background knowledge is necessary, however, basic orientation in linguistics is beneficial.