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Early autonomy of syntax as revealed by cortical electrophysiology
PULVERMULLER, F., SHTYROV, Y. & HASTING, A.
Cognitive Neuroscience Society Annual Meeting Program 2005, Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience supplement, p.25
Year of publication:
Syntax sets apart humans from the animal kingdom. Its major hallmark, the ability to distinguish well-formed sentences from ungrammatical word strings, requires attentive controlled processing. However, it is possible that the linguistic machinery of the human brain distinguishes automatically between syntactic and irregular strings. We investigated event-related brain potentials to grammatical and ungrammatical speech while subjects were either passively distracted by auditory and visual input or had to perform a demanding acoustic signal detection task so that their attention was actively ìstreamed awayî from the speech input. An early index of syntactic violations, the syntactic Mismatch negativity (sMMN) was present even under strongest distraction, demonstrating the automaticity of syntactic processing. Early-on, sMMN magnitude was unaffected by attentional demand of the distractor task. Only after the peak of the sMMN, 140 ms after onset of the inflectional affix that rendered the word strings either grammatical or ungrammatical, the first attentional modulation of syntactic brain responses was present. The early automaticity of syntactic brain responses here demonstrated for the first time provides evidence for an encapsulated processing system for syntax that does not share resources with other cognitive domains.