Experimental Brain Research

, Volume 236, Issue 10, pp 2649–2660 | Cite as

Coherence in general and personal semantic knowledge: functional differences of the posterior and centro-parietal N400 ERP component

  • Benjamin SchöneEmail author
  • Moritz Köster
  • Thomas Gruber
Research Article


A growing body of scientific literature investigated the difference between general and personal semantic knowledge. In contrast to general world knowledge, personal semantics comprises highly individual knowledge about oneself. The present study aimed to differentiate processes of integration into personal as opposed to general semantic knowledge. For that purpose, participants were presented with pictures of themselves (Self-condition) or unknown persons (Other-condition) superimposed on a congruent or incongruent background. We hypothesized that self-referential processing is based on automatic retrieval of personal information as opposed to the processing of unknown persons, which requires voluntary, i.e., strategic, attention demanding processing. The topography of the N400 effect varied as a function of the type of semantic knowledge. We found a centro-parietal N400 effect within the Self-condition and a posterior effect within the Other-condition. The voluntary integration of facial expressions of unknown persons within the Other-condition was, furthermore, indexed by an N170 effect. The unresolved tension in personal semantics was reflected by the N500. Our study thus provides new impulses for interpretation of the N400’s functional properties and extends our knowledge about the N500. Implications for the functional properties of the self as an organizational structure are discussed.


Personal semantics General semantics Event-related potentials N170 N400 N500 



We thank Matthias Berg, Mareike Harms, Maren-Jo Kater, Leonardo Steenbock and Roberta Schröter for their help in stimulus design and data acquisition.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.

Supplementary material

221_2018_5324_MOESM1_ESM.tiff (12 mb)
Baseline-corrected grand average waveforms (ERPs) for all conditions at sensor sites from FDR analysis: (a) Posterior cluster from N170/Other, (b) Posterior cluster from N400/Other, (c) Central cluster from N400/Self (d) Mid-frontal clusters from N500/Self, (e) Frontal cluster from N500/Other, (f) Frontal cluster from N500/Other (TIFF 12289 KB)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Benjamin Schöne
    • 1
    Email author
  • Moritz Köster
    • 2
  • Thomas Gruber
    • 1
  1. 1.Institute of PsychologyOsnabrück UniversityOsnabrückGermany
  2. 2.Institute of PsychologyFree University BerlinBerlinGermany

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