Balancing prediction and sensory input in speech comprehension: The spatiotemporal dynamics of word recognition in context

Anastasia Klimovich-Gray, Lorraine K. Tyler*, Billi Randall, Ece Kocagoncu, Barry Devereux, William D. Marslen-Wilson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


Spoken word recognition in context is remarkably fast and accurate, with recognition times of ~200 ms, typically well before the end of the word. The neurocomputational mechanisms underlying these contextual effects are still poorly understood. This study combines source-localized electroencephalographic and magnetoencephalographic (EMEG) measures of real-time brain activity with multivariate representational similarity analysis to determine directly the timing and computational content of the processes evoked as spoken words are heard in context, and to evaluate the respective roles of bottom-up and predictive processing mechanisms in the integration of sensory and contextual constraints. Male and female human participants heard simple (modifier-noun) English phrases that varied in the degree of semantic constraint that the modifier (W1) exerted on the noun (W2), as in pairs, such as “yellow banana.” We used gating tasks to generate estimates of the probabilistic predictions generated by these constraints as well as measures of their interaction with the bottom-up perceptual input for W2. Representation similarity analysis models of these measures were tested against electroencephalographic and magnetoencephalographic brain data across a bilateral fronto-temporo-parietal language network. Consistent with probabilistic predictive processing accounts, we found early activation of semantic constraints in frontal cortex (LBA45) as W1 was heard. The effects of these constraints (at 100 ms after W2 onset in left middle temporal gyrus and at 140 ms in left Heschl’s gyrus) were only detectable, however, after the initial phonemes of W2 had been heard. Within an overall predictive processing framework, bottom-up sensory inputs are still required to achieve early and robust spoken word recognition in context. Human listeners recognize spoken words in natural speech contexts with remarkable speed and accuracy, often identifying a word well before all of it has been heard. In this study, we investigate the brain systems that support this important capacity, using neuroimaging techniques that can track real-time brain activity during speech comprehension. This makes it possible to locate the brain areas that generate predictions about upcoming words and to show how these expectations are integrated with the evidence provided by the speech being heard. We use the timing and localization of these effects to provide the most specific account to date of how the brain achieves an optimal balance between prediction and sensory input in the interpretation of spoken language.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)519-527
Number of pages9
JournalJournal of Neuroscience
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jan 2019

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright: © 2019 the authors.

This work was supported by a European Research Council Advanced Investigator Grant to L.K.T. under the European Community's Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme (2014–2020 ERC Grant Agreement 669820), and Isaac Newton Trust Research Grant 2017 Grant 15.40(k) to L.K.T.


  • Language
  • Prediction
  • RSA
  • Speech
  • Time-course
  • Word recognition


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