Strategic and Non-Strategic Semantic Expectations Hierarchically Modulate Neural Processing

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Perception is facilitated by a hierarchy of expectations generated from context and prior knowledge. In auditory processing, violations of local (within-trial) expectations elicit a mismatch negativity (MMN), while violations of global (across-trial) expectations elicit a later positive component (P300). This result is taken as evidence of prediction errors ascending through the expectation hierarchy. However, in language comprehension, there is no evidence that violations of semantic expectations across local-global levels similarly elicit a sequence of hierarchical error signals, thus drawing into question the putative link between event-related potentials (ERPs) and prediction errors. We investigated the neural basis of such hierarchical expectations of semantics in a word-pair priming paradigm. By manipulating the overall proportion of related or unrelated word-pairs across the task, we created two global contexts that differentially encouraged strategic use of primes. Across two experiments, we replicated behavioral evidence of greater priming in the high validity context, reflecting strategic expectations of upcoming targets based on "global" context. In our preregistered EEG analyses, we observed a "local" prediction error ERP effect (i.e., semantic priming) ∼250 ms post-target, which, in exploratory analyses, was followed 100 ms later by a signal that interacted with the global context. However, the later effect behaved in an apredictive manner, i.e., was most extreme for fulfilled expectations, rather than violations. Our results are consistent with interpretations of early ERPs as reflections of prediction error and later ERPs as processes related to conscious access and in support of task demands.Significance Statement Semantic expectations have been associated with the event-related potential (ERP) N400 component, which is modulated by semantic prediction errors across levels of the hierarchy. However, there is no evidence of a two-stage profile that reflects violations of semantic expectations at a single level of the hierarchy, such as the mismatch negativity (MMN) and P3b observed in the local-global paradigm, which are elicited by violations of local and global expectations, respectively. In the present study, we provided evidence of an early ERP effect that reflects violations of local semantic expectations, followed by an apredictive signal that interacted with the global context. Thus, these results support the notion of early ERPs as prediction errors and later ERPs reflecting conscious access and strategic use of context.

Bibliographic note

Copyright © 2020 Vidal Gran et al.


Original languageEnglish
Article numberENEURO.0229-20.2020
Pages (from-to)1-15
Number of pages15
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 6 Oct 2020


  • ERP, Predictive coding, Relatedness proportion, Semantic priming

ASJC Scopus subject areas