What’s behind a P600? Integration Operations during Irony Processing

The combined knowledge of word meanings and grammatical rules does not allow a listener to grasp the intended meaning of a speaker’s utterance. Pragmatic inferences on the part of the listener are also required. The present work focuses on the processing of ironic utterances (imagine a slow day being described as “really productive”) because these clearly require the listener to go beyond the linguistic code. Such utterances are advantageous experimentally because they can serve as their own controls in the form of literal sentences (now imagine an active day being described as “really productive”) as we employ techniques from electrophysiology (EEG). Importantly, the results confirm previous ERP findings showing that irony processing elicits an enhancement of the P600 component (Regel et al., 2011). More original are the findings drawn from Time Frequency Analysis (TFA) and especially the increase of power in the gamma band in the 280–400 time-window, which points to an integration among different streams of information relatively early in the comprehension of an irony. This represents a departure from traditional accounts of language processing which generally view pragmatic inferences as late-arriving. We propose that these results indicate that unification operations between the linguistic code and contextual information play a critical role throughout the course of irony processing and earlier than previously thought.