New paper by Chia-wen Lo in Frontiers in Human Neurosciences!

Take a look at the fantastic new paper by Chia-wen Lo now out in Frontiers in Human Neurosciences. In this paper, Chia-wen uses EEG to probe the memory mechanisms at play when readers resolve long-distance dependencies in Mandarin. She focuses on so-called “covert” dependencies, wh-questions like:

  • Mary xiang-zhidao John mai-le sheme
    Mary wonder John buy-ASP what
    “Mary wonders what John bought”

Two things are going on here. First, the question word sheme appears in the typical position of a direct object, after the verb. This is unlike English where the question word is moved to the beginning of a sentence. But, the question clause is embedded under the verb wonder. This means that a reader of this sentence can predict that a question is coming, just like an English-speaker can do when they see a question word at the beginning of the sentence  “What did Mary buy?

The question is whether Mandarin readers show EEG correlates that relate to the memory demands of making this sort of prediction (e.g. a “SAN” effect), which would be expected if the prediction involves the same processing as in English sentences that have been studied in previous work.

Interestingly, Chia-wen shows convincingly that participants do not show such an EEG effect. There are a couple things this means, most clearly (perhaps) that the SAN effects previously studied in the ERP literature are not correlates of the linguistic representation of long-distance dependencies, or are they simple indexes of active prediction.

There is a lot more going on here, including an innovative new way to simulate ERPs. Check it out!


Lo, Chia-wen & Brennan, Jonathan (2021)EEG Correlates of Long-Distance Dependency Formation in Mandarin Wh-Questions. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 15.
doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2021.591613


Event-related potential components are sensitive to the processes underlying how questions are understood. We use so-called “covert” wh-questions in Mandarin to probe how such components generalize across different kinds of constructions. This study shows that covert Mandarin wh-questions do not elicit anterior negativities associated with memory maintenance, even when such a dependency is unambiguously cued. N = 37 native speakers of Mandarin Chinese read Chinese questions and declarative sentences word-by-word during EEG recording. In contrast to prior studies, no sustained anterior negativity (SAN) was observed between the cue word, such as the question-embedding verb “wonder,” and the in-situ wh-filler. SANs have been linked with working memory maintenance, suggesting that grammatical features may not impose the same maintenance demands as the content words used in prior work.