Semantic Richness and the Activation of Concepts in Semantic Memory: Evidence from Event-Related Potentials
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Semantic richness refers to the amount of semantic information associated with a concept. Reaction-time (RT) studies have shown that words referring to rich concepts elicit faster responses than those referring to impoverished ones, suggesting that richer concepts are activated more quickly. In a recent functional neuroimaging study, richer concepts evoked less neural activity, which was interpreted as faster activation. The interpretations of these findings appear to conflict with event-related potential (ERP) studies showing no evidence that speed of concept activation is influenced by typical semantic variables. Resolution of this apparent contradiction is important because the interpretation of 40 years of semantic- memory RT studies depends on whether factors such as semantic richness influence the duration of initial concept activation or later decision and response processes. Consistent with previous studies of the effects of semantic factors on ERP, the present study shows that richness influences the magnitude, but not the latency, of the P2 and N400 ERP components (which are early relative to behavioral responses), suggesting that effects of richness on RT reflect temporal effects on downstream decision or response mechanisms rather than on upstream concept activation.