See what I mean? An ERP study of the effect of background knowledge on novel object processing

Abstract

Two event-related potential (ERP) experiments were used to examine the representation of object feature information and background knowledge in semantic memory. Participants were trained on novel object categories with three features and were tested with new exemplars that were complete or were missing one to two features that were essential or nonessential to object function. In both a category membership judgment task (Experiment 1) and a parts detection task (Experiment 2), the N400, a functionally specific measure of semantic access, was graded with feature number but was insensitive to knowledge-based feature importance. A separable ERP effect related to knowledge was seen in Experiment 1 as an enhanced frontocentral negativity (beginning ∼300 msec) to exemplars missing a nonessential versus an essential feature, but this effect did not manifest when background knowledge was less task relevant (Experiment 2). Thus, similarity- and knowledge-based effects are separable, and the locus of knowledge effects varies with task demands but does not seem to arise from facilitated semantic access.

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Correspondence to Kara D. Federmeier.

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This research was supported by NIA Grant AG26308 to K.D.F. We thank the members of the Cognition and Brain Lab, especially the undergraduate assistants who helped with this project: Anastasia Kidd, Sarah Baisley, Jessica Atkins, and Michael Hawn.

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Gratton, C., Evans, K.M. & Federmeier, K.D. See what I mean? An ERP study of the effect of background knowledge on novel object processing. Memory & Cognition 37, 277–291 (2009). https://doi.org/10.3758/MC.37.3.277

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Keywords

  • Background Knowledge
  • Semantic Memory
  • Electrode Site
  • Category Member
  • N400 Effect