Can the meaning of multiple words be integrated unconsciously?

Simon van Gaal, Lionel Naccache, Julia D I Meuwese, Anouk M van Loon, Alexandra H Leighton, Laurent Cohen, Stanislas Dehaene

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


What are the limits of unconscious language processing? Can language circuits process simple grammatical constructions unconsciously and integrate the meaning of several unseen words? Using behavioural priming and electroencephalography (EEG), we studied a specific rule-based linguistic operation traditionally thought to require conscious cognitive control: the negation of valence. In a masked priming paradigm, two masked words were successively (Experiment 1) or simultaneously presented (Experiment 2), a modifier ('not'/'very') and an adjective (e.g. 'good'/'bad'), followed by a visible target noun (e.g. 'peace'/'murder'). Subjects indicated whether the target noun had a positive or negative valence. The combination of these three words could either be contextually consistent (e.g. 'very bad - murder') or inconsistent (e.g. 'not bad - murder'). EEG recordings revealed that grammatical negations could unfold partly unconsciously, as reflected in similar occipito-parietal N400 effects for conscious and unconscious three-word sequences forming inconsistent combinations. However, only conscious word sequences elicited P600 effects, later in time. Overall, these results suggest that multiple unconscious words can be rapidly integrated and that an unconscious negation can automatically 'flip the sign' of an unconscious adjective. These findings not only extend the limits of subliminal combinatorial language processes, but also highlight how consciousness modulates the grammatical integration of multiple words.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20130212
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Biological Sciences
Issue number1641
Publication statusPublished - 5 May 2014


  • Brain
  • Comprehension
  • Electroencephalography
  • Humans
  • Models, Neurological
  • Semantics
  • Unconscious (Psychology)
  • Journal Article
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't


Dive into the research topics of 'Can the meaning of multiple words be integrated unconsciously?'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this