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Understanding counterfactuals in discourse modulates ERP and oscillatory gamma rhythms in the EEG


Bastiaansen,  Marcel C. M.
Neurobiology of Language Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, External Organizations;

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Urrutia, M., de Vega, M., & Bastiaansen, M. C. M. (2012). Understanding counterfactuals in discourse modulates ERP and oscillatory gamma rhythms in the EEG. Brain Research, 1455, 40-55. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2012.03.032.

This study provides ERP and oscillatory dynamics data associated with the comprehension of narratives involving counterfactual events. Participants were given short stories describing an initial situation (“Marta wanted to plant flowers in her garden…”), followed by a critical sentence describing a new situation in either a factual (“Since she found a spade, she started to dig a hole”) or counterfactual format (“If she had found a spade, she would have started to dig a hole”), and then a continuation sentence that was either related to the initial situation (“she bought a spade”) or to the new one (“she planted roses”). The ERPs recorded for the continuation sentences related to the initial situation showed larger negativity after factuals than after counterfactuals, suggesting that the counterfactual's presupposition – the events did not occur – prevents updating the here-and-now of discourse. By contrast, continuation sentences related to the new situation elicited similar ERPs under both factual and counterfactual contexts, suggesting that counterfactuals also activate momentarily an alternative “as if” meaning. However, the reduction of gamma power following counterfactuals, suggests that the “as if” meaning is not integrated into the discourse, nor does it contribute to semantic unification processes.