Borovsky, A., Kutas, M., Elman, J. Getting it right: Word learning across the hemispheres, Neuropsychologia, 2013, 51(5) pp. 825-37


The brain is able to acquire information about an unknown word’s meaning from a highly constraining sentence context with minimal exposure. In this study, we investigate the potential contributions of the cerebral hemispheres to this ability. Undergraduates first read weakly or strongly constraining sentences completed by known or unknown (novel) words. Subsequently, their knowledge of the previously exposed words was assessed via a lexical decision task in which each word served as visual primes for lateralized target words that varied in their semantic relationship to the primes (unrelated, identical or synonymous). As expected, smaller N400 amplitudes were seen for target words preceded by identical (vs. unrelated) known word primes, regardless of visual field of presentation. When Unknown words served as primes, N400 reductions to synonymous target words were observed only if the prime had appeared under High sentential constraint; targets appearing in the LVF/RH elicited a small N400 effect and modulation of a subsequent late positivity whereas those in the RVF/LH elicited modulation on the late positivity only. Unknown words initially seen in Low constraint contexts showed priming effects only in a late positivity and only in the RVF/LH. Strength of contextual constraint clearly seems to impact the hemispheres’ rapid acquisition of novel word meanings. N400 modulation for novel words under strong contextual constraint in the LVH/RH suggests that fast- mapped lexical representations may initially activate meanings that are weakly, distantly, associatively or thematically-related. More extensive and bilateral semantic processing seems to occur at longer processing latencies (post-N400).


Arielle Borovsky

Marta Kutas

Jeff Elman