Poster B79, Sunday, March 26, 8:00 – 10:00 am, Pacific Concourse
Harry Potter and the Chamber of WHAT?: Real-time semantic access is a function of the individual’s knowledge
Melissa Troyer1, Marta Kutas1; 1University of California, San Diego
Understanding the meaning of a word relies on rich sources of contextual information. However, models of language comprehension often neglect a critical source of variability: the comprehender’s knowledge. We used event-related brain potentials to test the extent to which real-time semantic access, inferred from N400 effects, is a function of comprehenders’ knowledge. As a test case, we chose the world of Harry Potter. Young adults who varied in knowledge of Harry Potter read sentence pairs which were Predictable (true to the stories) or Unpredictable (not true to the stories), e.g., ‘Harry has a patronus. It takes the form of a STAG (Predictable)/LIZARD (Unpredictable).’ Participants additionally read stories about general topics ending in a Predictable or Unpredictable word. As expected, knowledge about Harry Potter did not influence processing of sentences about general topics. By contrast, for Harry Potter stories, the size of the N400 effect varied with the participant’s knowledge: the most knowledgeable participants exhibited the largest effects, and the least knowledgeable participants exhibited the smallest (or no) effects. These effects were driven by responses to predictable items, which were graded according to knowledge. We conclude that real-time semantic access relies on the individual’s domain-specific knowledge. The results underscore the importance of considering knowledge-based individual differences in models of online language comprehension. Future studies aim to disentangle whether these knowledge-dependent effects are determined strictly by the proportion of experimental items any given individual knows, or are additionally influenced by an individual’s depth or breadth of knowledge about the domain.
Topic Area: LANGUAGE: Semantic