Negation mitigates rather than inverts the neural representations of adjectives

Arianna Zuanazzi, Pablo Ripollés, Wy Ming Lin, Laura Gwilliams, Jean Rémi King, David Poeppel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Combinatoric linguistic operations underpin human language processes, but how meaning is composed and refined in the mind of the reader is not well understood. We address this puzzle by exploiting the ubiquitous function of negation. We track the online effects of negation (“not”) and intensifiers (“really”) on the representation of scalar adjectives (e.g., “good”) in parametrically designed behavioral and neurophysiological (MEG) experiments. The behavioral data show that participants first interpret negated adjectives as affirmative and later modify their interpretation towards, but never exactly as, the opposite meaning. Decoding analyses of neural activity further reveal significant above chance decoding accuracy for negated adjectives within 600 ms from adjective onset, suggesting that negation does not invert the representation of adjectives (i.e., “not bad” represented as “good”); furthermore, decoding accuracy for negated adjectives is found to be significantly lower than that for affirmative adjectives. Overall, these results suggest that negation mitigates rather than inverts the neural representations of adjectives. This putative suppression mechanism of negation is supported by increased synchronization of beta-band neural activity in sensorimotor areas. The analysis of negation provides a steppingstone to understand how the human brain represents changes of meaning over time.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere3002622
JournalPLoS biology
Issue number5 May
StatePublished - May 2024

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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