Brainwaves are stethoscopes: ERP correlates of novel metaphor comprehension

Brain Res. 2007 Jul 30;1160:69-81. doi: 10.1016/j.brainres.2007.05.034. Epub 2007 May 31.


The processing of unfamiliar metaphors was examined using event related potentials (ERPs). We compared the patterns of brain electrical activity elicited by processing two-word expressions denoting literal, conventional metaphoric, and novel metaphoric meaning, as well as unrelated word pairs. Participants performed a semantic judgment task in which they decided whether each word pair conveyed a meaningful expression. N400 amplitude to the second word of the pair varied as a function of expression type in a graded manner increasing from literal expressions to conventional metaphors, to novel metaphors and to unrelated pairs. N400s elicited by novel metaphors showed a right-biased scalp distribution as compared to those elicited by conventional metaphors. Novel metaphors also elicited a right-sided late negativity suggesting further attempts to integrate meaning in a non-literal fashion, a result that supports the sequential view of novel metaphor comprehension. These findings are consistent with recent brain imaging studies and complement them by adding the temporal dynamics dimension.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography / methods
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Metaphor*
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Reaction Time / physiology
  • Stethoscopes*
  • Time Factors