From novel to familiar: tuning the brain for metaphors

Neuroimage. 2012 Feb 15;59(4):3212-21. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2011.11.079. Epub 2011 Dec 4.


Metaphors are fundamental to creative thought and expression. Newly coined metaphors regularly infiltrate our collective vocabulary and gradually become familiar, but it is unclear how this shift from novel to conventionalized meaning happens in the brain. We investigated the neural career of metaphors in a functional magnetic resonance imaging study using extensively normed new metaphors and simulated the ordinary, gradual experience of metaphor conventionalization by manipulating participants' exposure to these metaphors. Results showed that the conventionalization of novel metaphors specifically tunes activity within bilateral inferior prefrontal cortex, left posterior middle temporal gyrus, and right postero-lateral occipital cortex. These results support theoretical accounts attributing a role for the right hemisphere in processing novel, low salience figurative meanings, but also show that conventionalization of metaphoric meaning is a bilaterally-mediated process. Metaphor conventionalization entails a decreased neural load within semantic networks rather than a hemispheric or regional shift across brain areas.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Metaphor*
  • Recognition, Psychology*
  • Semantics*
  • Young Adult