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date: 23 May 2019

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter explores counterfactual language understanding (e.g. If money grew on trees…), which requires false information to be accepted as temporarily true (and vice versa). First, counterfactual constructions are defined, then counterfactual reasoning strategies are reviewed, and understanding is linked to existing theories of language comprehension. The key focus of this chapter is to evaluate recent empirical work that has sought to understand how counterfactuals are represented and accessed on-line during language comprehension. Thus, temporally sensitive cognitive neuroscientific methodologies are discussed alongside a variety of language comprehension tasks. Overall, it is concluded that healthy adult readers can make appropriate inferences following a counterfactual context, showing rapid (possibly simultaneous) access to both the counterfactual and factual interpretations of events, which parallels the processes involved in mental state attributions.

Keywords: counterfactuals, language comprehension, inferences, mental representations, anomaly detection, reasoning, eye movements, event-related potentials, social cognition

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