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ERP-pupil size correlations reveal how bilingualism enhances cognitive flexibility

Author(s): Jan-Rouke Kuipers, Guillaume Thierry

A bilingual upbringing has been shown to enhance executive control, but the neural mechanisms underpinning such effect are essentially unknown. Here, we investigated whether monolingual and bilingual toddlers differ in semantic processing efficiency and their allocation of attention to expected and unexpected visual stimuli. We simultaneously recorded event-related brain potentials (ERPs) and pupil size in monolingual and bilingual toddlers presented with (spoken) word-picture pairs. Although ERP effects elicited by semantic relatedness were indistinguishable between the two children groups, pictures unrelated to the preceding word evoked greater pupil dilation than related pictures in bilinguals, but not in monolinguals. Furthermore, increasing pupil dilation to unrelated pictures was associated with decreasing N400 amplitude in bilinguals, whereas the monolingual toddlers showed the opposite association. Hence, attention to unexpected stimuli seems to hamper semantic integration in monolinguals, but to facilitate semantic integration in bilinguals, suggesting that bilingual toddlers are more tolerant to variation in word-referent mappings. Given the link between pupil dilation and norepinephrine-driven cognitive efficiency, correlations between ERP amplitude and concurrent pupil dilation provide new insights into the neural bases of the bilingual cognitive advantage.

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ISBN: 0010-9452
Publication Year: 2013
Periodical: Cortex
Periodical Number: 10
Volume: 49
Pages: 2853-2860
Author Address: