Novel metaphors appear anomalous at least momentarily: evidence from N400

Brain Lang. 2002 Mar;80(3):488-509. doi: 10.1006/brln.2001.2610.


This study addresses a central question in perception of novel figurative language: whether it is interpreted intelligently and figuratively immediately, or only after a literal interpretation fails. Eighty sentence frames that could plausibly end with a literal, truly anomalous, or figurative word were created. After validation for meaningfulness and figurativeness, the 240 sentences were presented to 11 subjects for event related potential (ERP) recording. ERP's first 200 ms is believed to reflect the structuring of the input; the prominence of a dip at around 400 ms (N400) is said to relate inversely to how expected a word is. Results showed no difference between anomalous and metaphoric ERPs in the early window, metaphoric and literal ERPs converging 300-500 ms after the ending, and significant N400s only for anomalous endings. A follow-up study showed that the metaphoric endings were less frequent (in standardized word norms) than were the anomalous and literal endings and that there were significant differences in cloze probabilities (determined from 24 new subjects) among the three ending types: literal > metaphoric > anomalous. It is possible that the low frequency of the metaphoric element and lower cloze probability of the anomalous one contributed to the processes reflected in the early window, while the incongruity and near-zero cloze probability of the anomalous endings produced an N400 effect in them alone. The structure or parse derived for metaphor during the early window appears to yield a preliminary interpretation suggesting anomaly, while semantic analysis reflected in the later window renders a plausible figurative interpretation.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Metaphor*
  • Random Allocation
  • Semantics
  • Speech Perception*