The Role of the Right Hemisphere in Metaphor Comprehension: A Meta-Analysis of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging Studies

Hum Brain Mapp. 2014 Jan;35(1):107-22. doi: 10.1002/hbm.22160. Epub 2012 Aug 30.


The role of the right hemisphere (RH) in metaphor comprehension is still controversial. Numerous neuroimaging studies have found that conventionality, sentential context, and task demand can influence the involvement of the RH in metaphor processing. The current meta-analysis used foci from 17 original functional magnetic resonance imaging studies to identify what factors modulate the involvement of the RH in metaphor processing. Activation likelihood estimation was used for quantification. We focused on the contrast of metaphorical meaning processing versus literal meaning processing and calculated the meta-analysis effects when (1) metaphorical meaning is conventional, (2) metaphorical meaning is novel, (3) metaphorical and literal meaning are presented in words, (4) metaphorical and literal meaning are presented in sentential context, (5) task is valence judgment, and (6) task is semantic relatedness judgment. The results indicated that the RH only showed significant effects in metaphor processing when the metaphorical meaning is novel, when metaphorical meaning is presented in sentential context, and when the task is semantic relatedness judgment. The effects were located in right fronto-temporal regions, including inferior frontal gyrus, middle frontal gyrus, insula, superior temporal gyrus, and middle temporal gyrus. These results suggest that conventionality, contextual complexity, and task demand can modulate the effect of figurativeness and influence the involvement of RH in metaphor comprehension. The main role of the RH in metaphor processing is related with activating broad semantic fields and integrating concepts that may have distant semantic relations, and hence provide support for the view that the RH is responsible for processing coarse semantic information in language comprehension.

Keywords: activation likelihood estimation; conventionality; functional magnetic resonance imaging; metaphor; right hemisphere; sentential context; task demand.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Metaphor*
  • Semantics