The Journal of neuroscience : the official journal of the Society for Neuroscience
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Syntax is the core computational component of language. A longstanding idea about syntactic processing is that it is generally not available to conscious access, operating autonomously and automatically. However, there is little direct neurocognitive evidence on this issue. By measuring event-related potentials while human observers performed a novel cross-modal distraction task, we demonstrated that syntactic violations that were not consciously detected nonetheless produced a characteristic early neural response pattern, and also significantly delayed reaction times to a concurrent task. This early neural response was distinct from later neural activity that was observed only to syntactic violations that were consciously detected. These findings provide direct evidence that the human brain reacts to violations of syntax even when these violations are not consciously detected, indicating that even highly complex computational processes such as syntactic processing can occur outside the narrow window of conscious awareness.