Left-lateralized N170 response to unpronounceable pseudo but not false Chinese characters-the key role of orthography

S. E. Lin, H. C. Chen, J. Zhao, S. Li, S. He, X. C. Weng

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67 Scopus citations


A negative event-related potential (ERP) component, known as N170, can be readily recorded over the posterior left brain region when skilled readers are presented with visual words. This left-lateralized word-related N170 has been attributed either to linguistic processes, particularly phonological processing, or to the role of orthographic regularity, emphasizing a perceptual origin. This debate, however, is difficult to resolve in the context of alphabetic scripts because of the tight relations between orthography and phonology. In contrast, Chinese characters have arbitrary mappings between orthographic and sound forms, making it possible to tease apart these two properties of visual words. We therefore addressed this issue by examining ERP responses to Chinese characters and three types of structurally matched but unpronounceable stimuli: pseudo-characters, false-characters, and stroke combinations. A content-irrelevant color matching task was adopted to minimize potentially different top-down modulations across stimulus types. Results show that, relative to false-characters and stroke combinations, real- and pseudo-characters evoked greater N170 in the left posterior brain region. Critically, despite being unpronounceable, pseudo-characters produced the same amplitude and left-lateralized N170, just as real-characters. These results provide strong evidence that orthography rather than phonology serves as the main driver for the enhanced and left-lateralized N170 to visual words.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)200-206
Number of pages7
StatePublished - Sep 5 2011

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (grant no. 2007CB512300 ), the National Science Foundation of China (grant no. 31070905 ), the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the National Science Foundation (NSF BCS-0818588), and a departmental grant from the Chinese University of Hong Kong .


  • Chinese character
  • N170
  • Orthography
  • Phonology


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