A special role for the right hemisphere in metaphor comprehension? ERP evidence from hemifield presentation

Author(s): Coulson S, Van Petten C


It has been suggested that the right hemisphere (RH) has a privileged role in the processing of figurative language, including metaphors, idioms, and verbal humor. Previous experiments using hemifield visual presentation combined with human electrophysiology support the idea that the RH plays a special role in joke comprehension. The current study examines metaphoric language. Event-related potentials (ERPs) were recorded as healthy adults read English sentences that ended predictably (High-cloze Literals), or with a plausible but unexpected word (Low-cloze Literals and Low-cloze Metaphoricals). Sentence final words were presented in either the left or the right visual hemifield. Relative to High-cloze Literals, Low-cloze Literals elicited a larger N400 component after presentation to both the left and the right hemifield. Low-cloze Literals also elicited a larger frontal positivity following the N400, but only with presentation to the right hemifield (left hemisphere). These data suggest both cerebral hemispheres can benefit from supportive sentence context, but may suggest an important role for anterior regions of the left hemisphere in the selection of semantic information in the face of competing alternatives. Relative to Low-cloze Literals, Low-cloze Metaphoricals elicited more negative ERPs during the timeframe of the N400 and afterwards. However, ERP metaphoricity effects were very similar across hemifields, suggesting that the integration of metaphoric meanings was similarly taxing for the two hemispheres, contrary to the predictions of the right hemisphere theory of metaphor.

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