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Neuroimage. 2012 Oct 15;63(1):600-10. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.06.022. Epub 2012 Jul 1.

Where in the brain is nonliteral language? A coordinate-based meta-analysis of functional magnetic resonance imaging studies.

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Department of Psychiatry, University of Tuebingen, Calwerstrasse 14, 72076 Tuebingen, Germany.


An increasing number of studies have investigated non-literal language, including metaphors, idioms, metonymy, or irony, with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). However, key questions regarding its neuroanatomy remain controversial. In this work, we used coordinate-based activation-likelihood estimations to merge available fMRI data on non-literal language. A literature search identified 38 fMRI studies on non-literal language (24 metaphor studies, 14 non-salient stimuli studies, 7 idiom studies, 8 irony studies, and 1 metonymy study). Twenty-eight studies with direct comparisons of non-literal and literal studies were included in the main meta-analysis. Sub-analyses for metaphors, idioms, irony, salient metaphors, and non-salient metaphors as well as studies on sentence level were conducted. Studies reported 409 activation foci, of which 129 (32%) were in the right hemisphere. These meta-analyses indicate that a predominantly left lateralised network, including the left and right inferior frontal gyrus; the left, middle, and superior temporal gyrus; and medial prefrontal, superior frontal, cerebellar, parahippocampal, precentral, and inferior parietal regions, is important for non-literal expressions.

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