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Early processing of auditory lexical predictions revealed by ERPs

Martijn Baart 1 and Arthur, G. Samuel 1,2,3

BCBL. Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language, Donostia San Sebastin, Spain.

IKERBASQUE, Basque Foundation for Science.

Stony Brook University, Dept. of Psychology, Stony Brook, NY, the United States of America.

Corresponding author:

Martijn Baart
BCBL. Basque Center on Cognition, Brain and Language
Paseo Mikeletegi 69, 2nd floor
20009 Donostia (San Sebastin)
Tel: +34 943 309 300 (ext. 228)
Email: m.baart@bcbl.eu

Auditory lexical processing starts within 200 ms after onset of the critical stimulus. Here,
we used Electroencephalography (EEG) to investigate whether 1) the so-called N200 effect can
be triggered by single-item lexical context, and 2) such effects are robust against temporal
violations of the signal. We presented items in which lexical status (i.e., is the stimulus a word or
a pseudoword?) was determined at third syllable onset. The critical syllable could be naturally
timed or delayed (by ~440 or ~800 ms). Across all conditions, we observed an effect of lexicality
that started ~200 ms after third syllable onset (i.e., an N200 effect in naturally timed items, and a
similar effect superimposed on the P2 for the delayed items). The results indicate that early
lexical processes are robust against violations of temporal coherence.

Speech perception, N200 effect, early lexicality effects, robust lexical effects

Despite the fact that speech input is variable, complex, and often degraded, humans
rapidly decode the signal into a meaningful linguistic percept. Initial processing of different
features of the speech signal (e.g., phonological, lexical and semantic properties) takes place
within 200 ms after onset of the stimulus [e.g., 1, 2, 3, 4]. For instance, event-related potentials
(ERPs) within 150-250 ms after onset of an incongruent target-word such as maze embedded
in the sentence the painter colored the details with a small maze, are more negative than for
congruent target-words such as "paint brush". This so-called N200 effect has been argued to
reflect a selection process during which initial phonological assessment of the stimuli interacts
with predictive information derived from the semantic/syntactic context [5, 6]. Even though the
N200 effect sometimes has been considered to be a part of the later auditory N400 effect that is
triggered by similar stimulus manipulations [e.g., 7, 8, 9], there is evidence that functionally
differentiates the two [5, 6], with the N200 effect being related to lexical selection, and the N400
effect to semantic integration [6].
Consistent with the time-frame of the N200 effect, oddball paradigms in which
repetitions of a standard stimulus are occasionally followed by a deviant, have revealed that the
mismatch negativity-response [i.e., MMN, 10] generated by the deviant is modulated by lexical
properties of the signal [e.g., 11, 12, 13]. For instance, van Linden et al. [13] repeatedly
presented listeners with a stimulus in which the final consonant was replaced by an ambiguous
sound in between t and 'p' (i.e., '?' in vloo? or hoo?) and investigated the MMN generated by
an occasional presentation of a canonical t sound (the deviant) embedded in 'vloot' or 'hoot',
respectively. In line with Ganong [14], van Linden et al. [13] observed that the lexicon
perceptually changed the ? in vloo? to a t (vloot is Dutch for fleet, vloop is a non-

word), and the ? in hoo? to a p (hoop means hope, hoot is a non-word). The authors
observed a smaller MMN when 'vloo?' was followed by 'vloot' than when 'hoo?' was followed by
One way to interpret this result is that the standards had generated predictions about the
phonological identity of the subsequent sound, and that the MMN increased whenever such a
prediction was violated. According to this view, the prediction about the upcoming sound that is
generated by repeated presentations of '?' that is disambiguated towards 'p', would be violated
upon hearing t (as one expects to hear the same p-like sound), generating an MMN, assuming
that the MMN reflects a violation of a built-up memory trace in echoic memory [15]. However,
the standard sound could also have generated a lexical prediction about the upcoming sound.
Since the hoot deviant was the only pseudoword in the set, its larger MMN may therefore be
related to the fact that the listener had expected to hear a lexically valid item, but instead heard a
There is accumulating evidence favoring such a predictive coding account on a single
item level [e.g., 16], and the brain indeed responds differently to words and pseudowords in the
time-window of the N200 effect when measured from the point where lexical status in the item is
determined [1]. Here, we sought to determine whether the N200 effect can be triggered by
lexical predictions generated within the context of a single word (as opposed to a multi-word
context) -- previous behavioral research on phonemic restoration [17] and phonetic
categorization [18, 19] suggests more direct perceptual effects of within-item lexical context than
sentential context. We presented Spanish listeners (N = 16) with three-syllable auditory stimuli
in which the third syllable determined the lexical status of the item (e.g., lechuga, meaning
lettuce, versus the pseudoword lechuda), while measuring ERPs time-locked to the onset of

the third syllable. If the N200 effect is sensitive to lexical predictions generated on a single-item
level, we should observe a more negative ERP for pseudowords than for words about 200 ms
after onset of the third syllable.
The second aim of the study was to determine whether this N200 effect was robust
against violations in temporal coherence within the items, and thus, whether lexical predictions
survive across time. We therefore included conditions in which we inserted a ~440 or ~800 ms
period of silence between the second and third syllables (henceforth delay conditions). These
conditions were expected to generate ERPs with a different morphology than for the naturally
timed items, as the delayed onset of the third syllable should elicit an N1/P2 complex. Lexical
effects may shift in time based on stimulus specifications [e.g., 20] and similar effects can be
superimposed on different ERP components [e.g., 21]. If the lexicality effect can survive the
delay, we should observe more negative activity for pseudowords than words, but with the
lexicality effect at around 200 ms now superimposed on the P2 component.

Material and methods

Sixteen native Spanish adults (11 females, mean age = 21 years, S.D. = 1.5) with normal
hearing and normal- or corrected-to-normal vision participated in the experiment in return for
payment ( 10 per hour). All provided written informed consent. The experiment was conducted
in accordance with the Declaration of Helsinki.

Three-syllable items (with a CVCVCV, CCVCVCV or CVCCVCV structure) were
selected from the EsPal subtitle database [22]. We excluded items that (1) were not (only) nouns,
(2) had word stress on the first or third syllable, (3) were diminutives or had lexically valid items
embedded in them (according the on-line dictionary of the Real Academia Espaola), (4) had a
frequency < 2 or > 15 per million or (5) had a phonological neighbor (defined by the addition,
deletion or substitution of one letter) with a higher frequency than the item itself. These criteria
yielded a set of 6 words: brigada (brigade), lechuga (lettuce), granuja (rascal), laguna
(lagoon), pellejo (hide/skin) and boleto ((lottery) ticket). Next, pseudowords were
created by rotating the final syllables (1) without creating new embedded lexical items, (2) such
that all final syllables occurred once in a word and once in a pseudoword and (3) so that the final
consonant in the pseudowords never occurred after the first two syllables in any existing Spanish
words. The resulting pseudowords were brigaja, lechuda, laguga, granuna, pelleto, and
bolejo. The predictability of speech segments is known to modulate early EEG activity [e.g.,
23] and was therefore controlled in our stimuli, with very similar predictability from syllable
two to three for words and pseudowords. More precisely, transition probabilities (derived from
the CLEARPOND database [24]) for syllables were .037 for words and .003 for pseudowords, p
= .21, and transition probabilities for biphones were .051 for words and .036 pseudowords, p =
A male native speaker of Spanish recorded the words and a set of 12 pseudowords in
which the final consonant was replaced by ch or sh. To control for acoustic properties and coarticulation, all items were created from the ch or sh items through splicing. For example,
auditory da from brigada was spliced onto briga from brigacha and lechu from

lechusha to create brigada (a real word) and lechuda (a pseudoword). All of the naturallytimed stimuli sounded natural, with no audible clicks or irregularities.

Participants were seated in a sound-attenuated, dimly lit and electrically shielded booth
about ~80 cm from a computer monitor. Stimuli were presented through a regular computer
speaker (at 65 dB(A) at ear-level and a 48 kHz sampling rate) placed directly above the monitor.
There were 6 experimental blocks (~8 minutes in duration), and each block contained 108
experimental trials. Of these, 54 were lexical items and 54 were non-lexical items (9
presentations of each of the 6 words and 6 pseudowords). In each block, one-third of the items
were naturally timed, one-third came from the ~440 ms delay condition (the silence in between
syllables 2 and 3 was 400, 440 or 480 ms, 1 presentation per item per delay), and one-third were
from the ~800 ms delay condition (760, 800 or 840 ms). On an additional 18 trials per block
(~14% of the total of 756 trials), a small white dot appeared on the screen (120 ms in duration) at
auditory onset of the third syllable. These trials were included to keep participants oriented
towards the monitor (and the speaker above it) and minimize head movement during testing.
Participants were instructed to press a button upon detecting a dot. Each trial started with a 400
ms fixation cross followed by a 600, 800 or 1000 ms interval before the auditory stimulus was
delivered. Onset of the critical third syllable thus ranged from 1240 ms (no delay condition, 600
ms break) to 2280 ms (840 ms delay, 1000 ms break) after the fixation had disappeared. The
inter-trial interval between sound offset and fixation onset was 1800 ms. Trials were pseudorandomly distributed across the six experimental blocks. Before the experiment started,

participants were instructed about the three delay conditions and completed a 12-trial practice
session to acquaint them with the procedures.
EEG recording and analyses. The EEG was recorded with a 32-channel BrainAmp
system (Brain Products GmbH) at a 500 Hz sampling rate. Twenty-seven Ag/AgCl electrodes
were placed in an EasyCap recording cap at positions Fp1, Fp2, F7, F3, Fz, F4, F8, FC5, FC1,
FC2, FC6, T7, C3, Cz, C4, T8, CP5, CP1, CP2, CP6, P7, P3, Pz, P4, P8, O1 and O2. An
additional electrode at FCz served as ground, and 4 electrodes (2 on the orbital ridge above and
below the right eye and 2 on the lateral junctions of both eyes) recorded the vertical- and
horizontal Electro-oculogram (EOG). Two electrodes were placed on the mastoids, of which the
left was used to reference the signal on-line. Impedance was kept below 5 k for mastoid and
scalp electrodes, and below 10 k for EOG electrodes. The EEG signal was analyzed using
Brain Vision Analyzer 2.0. The signal was referenced off-line to an average of the two mastoid
electrodes and band-pass filtered (Butterworth Zero Phase Filter, 0.1 - 30 Hz, 24 dB/octave).
ERPs were time-locked to auditory onset of the third syllable and the raw data were segmented
into 1100 ms epochs (i.e., 200 ms before, and 900 ms after third syllable onset). After EOG
correction [25], segments that included artifacts were rejected (we allowed a maximal voltage
step of 50 V/ms, a 100 V maximal difference in a 200 ms interval, a minimal/maximal
amplitude of +/- 50 V in a segment, and the lowest allowed activity in a 100 ms interval was .5
V). The average proportion of trials that survived artifact rejection was 95% (with a range
between 91% and 98% per electrode, and 94% and 95% per condition).
ERPs for the 'dot-trials', during which a response was required (97% of the dots were
detected), were excluded from analyses and the remaining ERPs were averaged separately for

words and pseudowords for all three delay conditions (no delay, ~440 ms, ~800 ms) and baseline corrected (200 ms before third syllable onset).
In each delay condition, the difference between ERPs obtained with words versus
pseudowords was investigated through point-wise t-tests (see Figure 1) that were corrected via
temporal significance thresholds [26]. In this procedure, the autocorrelation and length of the
time-window are critical parameters. However, since it is unclear how the autocorrelation should
be estimated [27], we applied the corrections four different ways: assuming low (.3) or high (.9)
autocorrelation, and in either one 0-300 ms epoch or six consecutive 50 ms windows. The four
approaches yielded comparable results (see Figure 1). The N200 effect (i.e., the word
pseudoword difference) was compared across delay conditions in an overall ANOVA on 50 ms
time-windows in between 100 and 300 ms. We also conducted one-way within-subject ANOVAs
on the difference-waves at each electrode and time-point (in the 0-300 ms epoch) with Delay
condition (naturally timed, 440 ms, 800 ms) as the independent variable.

As can be seen in Figure 1a, there was a clear effect of stimulus lexicality in all
conditions: Independent of whether the third syllable was naturally timed or delayed relative to
the second syllable, items in which the third syllable produced a word yielded more positive (yet
similarly shaped) ERPs than items in which the third syllable produced a pseudoword. Early (
300 ms) lexicality effects were explored by point-wise t-tests in each delay condition (see Figure
1b). Effects for naturally timed items started at around 60 ms in centro-parietal electrodes over
the right hemisphere and lasted ~40 ms. A more fronto-centrally oriented difference between
words and pseudowords was observed in an ~80 ms time-window starting at around 170 ms. At

around 280 ms, differences became more wide-spread. Lexicality effects in both delay conditions
started somewhat later than in the naturally timed condition (at around 200 ms) and were more
wide-spread and prominent for the ~800 ms delay condition than the ~440 ms condition.
Next, we calculated the lexicality effect for each delay condition (i.e., the pseudoword
word difference waves, see Figure 1c.) and averaged the difference in four 50 ms time-bins from
100 to 300 ms (which is the time-frame that captures the N200 effect and is consistent with the
positive and negative peaks in the ERPs visible in Figure 1a). We submitted the data to a 3
(Delay condition: naturally timed, ~440, ~800) 4 (Time window: 100-150 ms, 150-200 ms,
200-250 ms, 250-300 ms) 9 (Electrode: Fz, FC1, FC2, C3, Cz, C4, CP1, CP2, Pz1) ANOVA.
There was a main effect of Time window, F(3,45) = 3.08, p = .04, p2 = .17, because the
lexicality effect increased from -.34 V in the first time-window to -.91 V in the second timewindow, t(15) = 2.22, p = .04. However, the N200 effect was quite consistent as none of the
other comparisons across time-windows reached significance (ps > .06). The ANOVA showed
no other main or interaction effects (ps > .09) indicating that the effect of stimulus lexicality was
alike across Delay conditions and Electrodes. One-way point-wise within-subject ANOVAs on
the pseudoword word difference scores (see Figure 1d), showed prominent main effects from
~164 to 214 ms, because the lexicality effect for the ~440 ms delay was smaller than in the other
two conditions (see Figure 1e for the pair-wise follow-up tests on the average activity across the
electrodes that showed a significant effect).

The N200 effect was largest at Cz (i.e., -.76 V) and we therefore included the 9 mid-central

electrodes in the ANOVA.


Figure 1. (a): ERPs for words and pseudowords per delay condition, (b): results of point-wise ttests in a 0-300 ms window (left panels labeled as I) and six 50 ms windows (right panels labeled
as II), (c): the pseudowords minus words difference wave, (d): the results of corresponding
point-wise ANOVAs, and (e): the scalp topographies of the time-window in which the difference
between conditions was most prominent. Asterisks indicate electrodes at which significant
differences between delay conditions (i.e., differences in lexicality effects) were observed.

Previous studies have reported that activation of lexical representations based on
semantic/syntactic context is associated with the N200 effect. In the current study, we addressed
two questions: (1) Can we find evidence that single word level lexical predictions are reflected in
an N200 effect? And, if so, (2) is the pattern of lexical activation robust against a violation of
temporal coherence? Our naturally timed items yielded an unambiguous N200 effect that was
superimposed on a negative peak, as observed before [5, 6]. Furthermore, we observed similarly
sized and shaped difference waves across all three conditions. Our findings are consistent with
reports of single word lexical effects in oddball paradigms [11-13], and demonstrations of
similarly timed and sized N200 effects (occurring at 150-250 ms and ranging between .71 and
.94 V) for lexical predictions generated by sentence contexts [5, 6]. Similarities across contexts
presumably arise because the N200 effect reflects phonological violation of lexical predictions
[e.g., 28], which is essentially the case in both sentential and single word contexts. As
mentioned, the N200 is likely to be functionally distinct from the subsequent N400 (that is also
related to semantic/syntactic context) [e.g., 5, 6, 9, 29]; Hagoort [29] has proposed that the N200
effect reflects lexical selection at the interface of lexical form and content (meaning), whereas
the N400 is driven by content only.
Critically, the effect of lexicality remained intact when we delayed the third syllable by
~440 or ~800 ms, even though the ERPs for naturally timed items were clearly different from
those in both delay conditions. This may seem surprising because the system usually does not
need to retain within-word lexical predictions about the upcoming sounds for hundreds of
milliseconds. However this does not necessarily imply that lexical information is transient by

nature, and our findings suggest that lexcially generated predictions about upcoming sounds
remain effective until overridden by new input.
Even though we observed a lexicality effect at around 200 ms across all delay conditions,
there were differences between conditions. As indicated in Figure 1a, the lexicality effect for the
naturally-timed items reached significance very early, in a ~50-100 ms window. MacGregor et
al. [1] used single-syllable items in which lexicality of the stimulus was defined by the final
plosive and observed similarly early effects of lexicality (50-80 ms after the point where lexical
status was determined). Given the absence of such effects in our delay conditions, the natural
context possibly not only generated predictions about what to expect, but also about when to
expect it. For example, hearing p after shee in a naturally-timed sheep token confirms the
lexical prediction as well as the temporal prediction about when it should occur. The same is true
for the natural condition in the current study in which lexical status of the stimulus was always
determined at the naturally timed third syllable onset. In contrast, in our delay conditions,
participants knew that lexical information would become available at onset of the third syllable,
but their normal predictions about when this would happen were violated. Under these
conditions, the lexical effect remained robust in the 200 ms range, but the early part of it
disappeared. A Bayesian perspective may provide an interesting hypothetical frame-work on this
issue: The prior belief about encountering pseudowords in the world (e.g., hearing a speaker in a
language unknown to the listener) is likely to be higher than encountering the unnatural delay of
third syllables as used here. In contrast, the probability of encountering a pseudoword in the
experiment on any given trial was lower (.50) than encountering a delay (.67). Thus, Bayesian
inference (i.e., updating of the prior based on evidence) may have been relatively large for
delayed items, possibly reducing early lexical processes.

However, the 3-way comparison across conditions (Figure 1d) did not show prominent
differences among conditions in the < 100 ms window, going against the Bayesian hypothesis as
sketched above. In fact, the effect in the naturally-timed and ~800 ms delay conditions were
quite similar in shape (see Figure 1c). In contrast, the ~440 ms delay condition showed a positive
trend in the data (already apparent before third-syllable onset, see Figure 1a) and a ~100 ms
delay in the difference waves relative to both other conditions, despite the similar shape of the
difference waves across conditions (see the 0-200 ms window in Figure 1c and Figure 1e). Given
that the onset of the lexicality effect for the items with a ~800 ms delay was similar to the
naturally timed items, the delayed onset of the effect in the ~440 ms condition is unlikely to be
caused by the delay in the stimulus per se. Instead, it is possible that the delayed effects for the
~440 ms condition are related to an increased temporal uncertainty in this condition. That is,
when the default state (i.e., the naturally-timed syllable) did not occur, listeners did not know
whether the third syllable would occur at ~440 ms or at ~800 ms. However, as soon as the ~440
ms window had passed, only one alternative remained.
Clearly however, the between condition differences are less prominent than the consistent
lexicality effects: We observed evidence for lexical processing starting at ~200 ms, and these
effects were to a large extent similar in shape and size across all three delay conditions. Note that
our words (and pseudowords) were drawn from a small stimulus set and presented many times,
which could have caused saturation (which holds for auditory as well as printed items, see e.g.,
[30, 31]). Saturation could work both ways: the lexical status of words, as well as the non-lexical
status of pseudowords, may become less clear with repetition. However, since we observed clear
effects of lexicality even with saturation possibly working against us, it seems likely that our
effects are genuine.

There are some parallels between the current results and recent ERP investigations of
audiovisual speech integration. In those studies, visual context that provided temporal
predictions modulated auditory processing about 100 ms post-stimulus [32], much as the
naturally-timed stimuli here did. And, speech-specific audiovisual integration was observed at
the P2 [33], with effects of phonetic stimulus congruency (i.e., whether the speech sound
phonetically matched the visual speech context) observed approximately 200 ms after the
congruency becomes apparent [33-37]. The current experiment shows that lexicality effects are
sufficiently robust in time to be investigated as a superimposed effect at the P2 peak, which
opens up future possibilities to investigate interactions between lip-read and lexical speech

This work was funded by Rubicon grant 446-11-014 by the Netherlands Organization for
Scientific Research (NWO) to MB, and MINECO grant PSI2010-17781 from the Spanish
Ministry of Economics and Competitiveness to AGS.

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