Sassenhagen, J. & Fiebach , C. J. (2019). Finding the P3 in the P600: Decoding shared neural mechanisms of responses to syntactic violations and oddball target detection. NeuroImage, 200, 425-436. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2019.06.048
The P600 Event-Related Brain Potential, elicited by syntactic violations in sentences, is generally interpreted as indicating language-specific structural/combinatorial processing, with far-reaching implications for models of language. P600 effects are also often taken as evidence for language-like grammars in non-linguistic domains like music or arithmetic. An alternative account, however, interprets the P600 as a P3, a domain-general brain response to salience. Using time-generalized multivariate pattern analysis, we demonstrate that P3 EEG patterns, elicited in a visual Oddball experiment, account for the P600 effect elicited in a syntactic violation experiment: P3 pattern-trained MVPA can classify P600 trials just as well as P600-trained ones. A second study replicates and generalizes this finding, and demonstrates its specificity by comparing it to face- and semantic mismatch-associated EEG responses. These results indicate that P3 and P600 share neural patterns to a substantial degree, calling into question the interpretation of P600 as a language-specific brain response and instead strengthening its association with the P3. More generally, our data indicate that observing P600-like brain responses provides no direct evidence for the presence of language-like grammars, in language or elsewhere.