Fraga & Padrón

Two brains in one mind: Affective and morpho-syntactic processing do not interact

Isabel Fraga1 and Isabel Padrón1

1Cognitive Processes & Behaviour Research Group, Department of Social Psychology, Basic Psychology, and Methodology, Universidade de Santiago de Compostela (Spain).

As regards neural correlates of syntactic processing, the recording of brain activity using the event-related potentials (ERPs) technique has revealed two main components which are typically elicited by a variety of morphosyntactic anomalies such as agreement violations: The Left Anterior Negativity (LAN), that emerges between 300 and 500 ms, and the so-called P600 (Molinaro et al., 2011). The first one is usually interpreted in terms of the processing difficulty associated to the error mismatch (e.g., ‘La manzana podrido‘), while the second is thought to reflect a later stage of structural reanalysis.

The purpose of our work is to examine if the processing of agreement errors may be affected by the presence of pleasant and/or unpleasant words compared to neutral ones, since previous evidence in this domain has shown contradictory results, specifically for unpleasant words in the LAN time window (Martín-Loeches et al., 2012: augmented LAN; Hinojosa et al., 2014: reduced LAN). Regardless of the direction of these effects, they have been used to argue against the Syntactic Encapsulation Hypothesis (Fodor, 1973), which maintains that syntactic processes, such as agreement co-indexations, should both precede any other types of processes and be unaffected by them (Friederici & Weissenborn, 2007).

Here we report a series of experiments in which participants performed a grammatical judgment task in Spanish while their electroencephalographic activity was recorded. In the first set of studies, participants reading long sentences showed the LAN+P600 biphasic pattern in ungrammatical conditions for both neutral and emotional words. In the second set of studies, the use of broader samples of participantswho read noun phrases allowed us to evidence that, in line with Tanner et al. (2014), rather than the abovementioned ERP pattern, participants displayed a continuum between negative and positive dominance (that is, either more LAN effects or more P600 effects). Interestingly, results revealed that the detection of gender agreement errors was not affected at all by word emotionality. In summary, we failed to find an interaction between morphosyntactic and affective processing, thus supporting the encapsulation of grammar.


Fodor, Jerry A. 1983. The modularity of mind Cambridge MA: MIT Press.

Friederici, A. D. & J. Weissenborn. 2007. Mapping sentence form onto meaning: the syntax-semantic interface. Brain Research 1146. 50-8. doi:10.1016/j.brainres.2006.08.038.

Hinojosa, J. A., J. Albert, U. Fernández-Folgueiras, G. Santaniello, C. Lopez-Bachiller, M. Sebastián, A. J. Sánchez-Carmona & M. A. Pozo. 2014. Effects of negative content on the processing of gender information: an event-related potential study. Cognitive Affective Behavioral Neuroscience 14(4).1286-99. 


Martín-Loeches, M., A. Fernández, A. Schacht, W. Sommer, P. Casado, L. Jiménez-Ortega & S. Fondevila. 2012. The influence of emotional words on sentence processing: electrophysiological and behavioural evidence. Neuropsychologia 50. 3262-72. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2012.09.010.

Molinaro, N., H. A. Barber & M. Carreiras. 2011. Grammatical agreement processing in reading: ERP findings and future directions. Cortex 47. 908-30. doi:10.1016/j.cortex.2011.02.019.

Tanner, D. & J. G. Van Hell. 2014. ERPs reveal individual differences in morphosyntactic processing. Neuropsychologia 56. 289-301. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2014.02.002.

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