How Does “Not Left” Become “Right”? Electrophysiological Evidence for a Dynamic Conflict-Bound Negation Processing Account

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Human thought and language is traditionally considered as abstract, amodal, and symbolic. However, recent theories propose that high-level human cognition is directly linked to basic, modal biological systems such as sensorimotor areas. Despite this influential representational debate very little is known regarding whether the mechanisms involved in sensorimotor control are also shared with higher-level cognitive processes, such as language comprehension. We investigated negation as a universal of human language, addressing two key questions: (a) Does negation result in a conflict-like representation? (b) Does negation trigger executive control adjustments in a similar manner as standard information processing conflicts do (e.g., Simon, Flanker)? Electrophysiological data indicated that phrases such as “not left/not right” result in initial activation of the to-be-negated information and subsequently the outcome of the negation process. More importantly, our findings also suggest that negation triggers conflict-related adjustments in information processing in line with traditional conflict tasks. Trial-by-trial conflict adaptation patterns in both behavioral and electrophysiological data indicated that negation processing dynamically changes depending on the current cognitive state. In summary, negation processing results in cognitive conflict, and dynamic influences of the cognitive state determine conflict resolution, that is, negation implementation.

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