Neural correlates of combinatorial semantic processing of literal and figurative noun noun compound words

Neuroimage. 2012 Nov 15;63(3):1432-42. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2012.07.029. Epub 2012 Jul 23.


The right hemisphere's role in language comprehension is supported by results from several neuropsychology and neuroimaging studies. Special interest surrounds right temporoparietal structures, which are thought to be involved in processing novel metaphorical expressions, primarily due to the coarse semantic coding of concepts. In this event related fMRI experiment we aimed at assessing the extent of semantic distance processing in the comprehension of figurative meaning to clarify the role of the right hemisphere. Four categories of German noun noun compound words were presented in a semantic decision task: a) conventional metaphors; b) novel metaphors; c) conventional literal, and; d) novel literal expressions, controlled for length, frequency, imageability, arousal, and emotional valence. Conventional literal and metaphorical compounds increased BOLD signal change in right temporoparietal regions, suggesting combinatorial semantic processing, in line with the coarse semantic coding theory, but at odds with the graded salience hypothesis. Both novel literal and novel metaphorical expressions increased activity in left inferior frontal areas, presumably as a result of phonetic, morphosyntactic, and semantic unification processes, challenging predictions regarding right hemispheric involvement in processing unusual meanings. Meanwhile, both conventional and novel metaphorical expressions induced BOLD signal change in left hemispherical regions, suggesting that even novel metaphor processing involves more than linking semantically distant concepts.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Image Interpretation, Computer-Assisted
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging
  • Male
  • Metaphor*
  • Semantics
  • Speech Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult