Sex differences in semantic processing: event-related brain potentials distinguish between lower and higher order semantic analysis during word reading.
ABSTRACT Behavioral studies suggest that women and men differ in the strategic elaboration of verbally encoded information especially in the absence of external task demand. However, measuring such covert processing requires other than behavioral data. The present study used event-related potentials to compare sexes in lower and higher order semantic processing during the passive reading of semantically related and unrelated word pairs. Women and men showed the same early context effect in the P1-N1 transition period. This finding indicates that the initial lexical-semantic access is similar in men and women. In contrast, sexes differed in higher order semantic processing. Women showed an earlier and longer lasting context effect in the N400 accompanied by larger signal strength in temporal networks similarly recruited by men and women. The results suggest that women spontaneously conduct a deeper semantic analysis. This leads to faster processing of related words in the active neural networks as reflected in a shorter stability of the N400 map in women. Taken together, the findings demonstrate that there is a selective sex difference in the controlled semantic analysis during passive word reading that is not reflected in different functional organization but in the depth of processing.