“Fast” versus “slow” word integration of visual and olfactory objects: EEG biomarkers of decision speed variability.

In psychological experiments, behavioral speed varies across trials, and this variation is often associated with corresponding fluctuations in cortical activity. Little is known about such cortical variations in semantic priming tasks where target words are matched with preceding sensory object cues. Here, two visually presented target words (“pear” and “lilac”) were repeatedly cued by corresponding odors or pictures, and the participants were to indicate matching or nonmatching combinations. Data were split in behaviorally “fast” versus “slow” trials. We hypothesized that slow trials would be associated with higher prestimulus alpha activity and reduced ERP amplitudes, and that response-time differences between odor-cued and picture-cued trials would be especially large in slow behavioral trials. Results confirmed that slow trials showed increased alpha-band activity prior to word target onset, as well as amplitude decreases in the sensory P1 and semantic N400 components. However, no interactions between cue-modality and processing speed were observed. Instead, odor-cue integration responses were uniquely delayed on incongruent trials, a novel behavioral effect that was not observed in EEG measures. The results show that semantic integration speed is reflected in cortical activity before and during stimulus processing. Behavioral interactions with cue modality did not correspond to observed cortical activity changes, perhaps because olfactory circuits are not readily observed in scalp-recorded EEG. We conclude that combining behavioral speed variability and cortical EEG measures is useful in understanding the fluctuating nature of cognitive processing sequences. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2018 APA, all rights reserved)