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Brain Cogn. 2009 Dec;71(3):375-86. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2009.06.001. Epub 2009 Jul 7.

Neural correlates of metaphor processing: the roles of figurativeness, familiarity and difficulty.

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Department of Psychology, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado, USA.


There is currently much interest in investigating the neural substrates of metaphor processing. In particular, it has been suggested that the right hemisphere plays a special role in the comprehension of figurative (non-literal) language, and in particular metaphors. However, some studies find no evidence of right hemisphere involvement in metaphor comprehension (e.g. [Lee, S. S., & Dapretto, M. (2006). Metaphorical vs. literal word meanings: fMRI evidence against a selective role of the right hemisphere. NeuroImage, 29, 536-544; Rapp, A. M., Leube, D. T., Erb, M., Grodd, W., & Kircher, T. T. J. (2004). Neural correlates of metaphor processing. Cognitive Brain Research, 20, 395-402]). We suggest that lateralization differences between literal and metaphorical language may be due to factors such as differences in familiarity ([Schmidt, G. L., DeBuse, C. J., & Seger, C. A. (2007). Right hemisphere metaphor processing? Characterizing the lateralization of semantic processes. Brain and Language, 100, 127-141]), or difficulty ([Bookheimer, S. (2002). Functional MRI of language: New approaches to understanding the cortical organization of semantic processing. Annual Review of Neuroscience, 25, 151-188; Rapp, A. M., Leube, D. T., Erb, M., Grodd, W., & Kircher, T. T. J. (2004). Neural correlates of metaphor processing. Cognitive Brain Research, 20, 395-402]) in addition to figurativeness. The purpose of this study was to separate the effects of figurativeness, familiarity, and difficulty on the recruitment of neural systems involved in language, in particular right hemisphere mechanisms. This was achieved by comparing neural activation using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) between four conditions: literal sentences, familiar and easy to understand metaphors, unfamiliar and easy to understand metaphors, and unfamiliar and difficult to understand metaphors. Metaphors recruited the right insula, left temporal pole and right inferior frontal gyrus in comparison with literal sentences. Familiar metaphors recruited the right middle frontal gyrus when contrasted with unfamiliar metaphors. Easy metaphors showed higher activation in the left middle frontal gyrus as compared to difficult metaphors, while difficult metaphors showed selective activation in the left inferior frontal gyrus as compared to easy metaphors. We conclude that the right hemisphere is involved in metaphor processing and that the factors of figurativeness, familiarity and difficulty are important in determining neural recruitment of semantic processing.

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