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Brain Lang. 2007 Feb;100(2):172-87. Epub 2005 Sep 30.

Hemispheric asymmetry and pun comprehension: when cowboys have sore calves.

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Cognitive Science Department, University of California, San Diego, USA.


Event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded as healthy participants listened to puns such as "During branding, cowboys have sore calves." To assess hemispheric differences in pun comprehension, visually presented probes that were either highly related (COW), moderately related (LEG), or unrelated, were presented in either the left or right visual half field (LVF/RVF). The sensitivity of each hemisphere to the different meanings evoked by the pun was assessed by ERP relatedness effects with presentation to the LVF and the RVF. In Experiment 1, the inter-stimulus interval between the pun and the onset of the visual probe was 0 ms; in Experiment 2, this value was 500 ms. In Experiment 1, both highly and moderately related probes elicited similar priming effects with RVF presentation. Relative to their unrelated counterparts, related probes elicited less negative ERPs in the N400 interval (300-600 ms post-onset), and more positive ERPs 600-900 ms post-onset, suggesting both meanings of the pun were equally active in the left hemisphere. LVF presentation yielded similar priming effects (less negative N400 and a larger positivity thereafter) for the highly related probes, but no effects for moderately related probes. In Experiment 2, similar N400 priming effects were observed for highly and moderately related probes presented to both visual fields. Compared to unrelated probes 600-900 ms post-onset, related probes elicited a centro-parietal positivity with RVF presentation, but a fronto-polar positivity with LVF presentation. Results suggest that initially, the different meanings evoked by a pun are both active in the left hemisphere, but only the most highly related meaning is active in the right hemisphere. By 500 ms, both meanings are active in both hemispheres.

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