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Sensitivity to Referential Ambiguity in Discourse: The Role of Attention, Working Memory, and Verbal Ability


The establishment of reference is essential to language comprehension. The goal of this study was to examine listeners' sensitivity to referential ambiguity as a function of individual variation in attention, working memory capacity, and verbal ability. Participants listened to stories in which two entities were introduced that were either very similar (e.g., two oaks) or less similar (e.g., one oak and one elm). The manipulation rendered an anaphor in a subsequent sentence (e.g., oak) ambiguous or unambiguous. EEG was recorded as listeners comprehended the story, after which participants completed tasks to assess working memory, verbal ability, and the ability to use context in task performance. Power in the alpha and theta frequency bands when listeners received critical information about the discourse entities (e.g., oaks) was used to index attention and the involvement of the working memory system in processing the entities. These measures were then used to predict an ERP component that is sensitive to referential ambiguity, the Nref, which was recorded when listeners received the anaphor. Nref amplitude at the anaphor was predicted by alpha power during the earlier critical sentence: Individuals with increased alpha power in ambiguous compared with unambiguous stories were less sensitive to the anaphor's ambiguity. Verbal ability was also predictive of greater sensitivity to referential ambiguity. Finally, increased theta power in the ambiguous compared with unambiguous condition was associated with higher working-memory span. These results highlight the role of attention and working memory in referential processing during listening comprehension.

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