Neural correlates of word recognition are commonly studied with rapid serial visual presentation (RSVP), a condition that eliminates three fundamental properties of natural reading: Parafoveal preprocessing, saccade execution, and the fast changes in attentional processing load occurring from fixation to fixation. We combined eye-tracking and EEG to systematically investigate the impact of all three factors on brain-electric activity during reading. Participants read lists of words either actively with eye movements (eliciting fixation-related potentials, FRPs), or maintained fixation while the text moved passively through foveal vision at a matched pace (RSVP-with-flankers paradigm, eliciting ERPs). The preview of the upcoming word was manipulated by changing the number of parafoveally visible letters. Processing load was varied by presenting words of varying lexical frequency. We found that all three factors have strong interactive effects on the brain’s responses to words: Once a word was fixated, occipitotemporal N1 amplitude decreased monotonically with the amount of parafoveal information available during the preceding fixation; hence, the N1 component was markedly attenuated under reading conditions with preview. Importantly, this preview effect was substantially larger during active reading (with saccades) than during passive RSVP-with-flankers, suggesting that the execution of eye movements facilitates word recognition by increasing parafoveal preprocessing. Lastly, we found that the N1 component elicited by a word also reflects the lexical processing load imposed by the previously inspected word. Together, these results demonstrate that under more natural conditions, words are recognized in a spatiotemporally distributed and interdependent manner across multiple eye fixations, a process that is mediated by active motor behavior.
Keywords:visual attention, saccades, parafoveal vision, foveal load, fixation-related potentials (FRP), eye movements, event-related potentials (ERP), reading, combined eye-tracking and EEG