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Modeling ERPs Report Summary

Project ID: 658999
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.3.2.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - Modeling ERPs (Combining electrophysiology and cognitive computational modeling in research on meaning in language)

Reporting period: 2015-08-01 to 2016-07-31

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

Language and meaning processing have been investigated with event-related brain potentials (ERPs), providing direct time-resolved measures of electrical brain activity, and with neural network models, providing mechanistic implementations of the assumed processes. However, there has been very little contact between these fields, even though a combination of both methods could be highly beneficial.
Specifically, a brain signal known as the N400 (a signal that was first described as a response to the presentation of a semantically unexpected word in a sentence) has aroused much interest for its promise to shed light on the brain basis of meaning processing. However, in spite of over 1000 studies using the N400 as a dependent variable, the representations and processes that underlie it remain incompletely understood.
The present project aims to provide an implemented theory of the N400’s functional basis and thus a theory of implicit meaning processing in the brain.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

We linked the N400 to a deep neural network model that predates many current state of the art language processing models by over 20 years and has renewed relevance in the context of recent breakthroughs in the field of deep learning.
Specifically, we provide both support for and formalization of the view that the N400 reflects the stimulus-driven update of a representation of sentence meaning – one that implicitly and probabilistically represents all aspects of meaning as it evolves in real time during comprehension. We do so by presenting an explicit computational model of this process, showing that it can account for a broad range of empirically observed N400 effects which have been difficult to capture within a single theoretical account and have previously been taken to support diverse and sometimes conflicting N400 theories.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

The present work provides a computationally explicit and precise theoretical formulation of the N400’s functional basis. This theory of the N400 and thus the brain’s implicit representation of meaning can provide a solid foundation for future studies to further delineate the distinct roles of the N400 as well as other signals evoked during language processing, and can serve as the basis for examining the roles of experience and individual differences in deriving meaning from language.

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