Hemispheric asymmetry in interpreting novel literal language: an event-related potential study

Neuropsychologia. 2013 Apr;51(5):907-21. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2013.01.018. Epub 2013 Feb 1.


Conceptual mapping, or making connections between conceptual structure in different domains, is a key mechanism of creative language use whose neural underpinnings are not well understood. The present study involved the combination of event-related potentials (ERPs) with the divided visual field presentation technique to explore the relative contributions of the left and right hemispheres (LH and RH) to the construction of novel meanings in fully literal language. Electroencephalogram (EEG) was recorded as healthy adults read sentences that supported either a conventional literal reading of the sentence final word ("His main method of transportation is a boat,"), or a novel literal meaning derived from conceptual mapping ("The clever boys used a cardboard box as a boat,"). The novel and conventional conditions were matched for cloze probability (a measure of predictability based on the sentence context), lexical association between the sentence frame and the final word (using latent semantic analysis), and other factors known to influence ERPs to language stimuli. To compare effects of novelty to previously reported effects of predictability, a high-cloze conventional condition ("The only way to get around Venice is to navigate the canals in a boat.") was included. ERPs were time-locked to sentence final words ("boat") presented in either the left visual field, to preferentially stimulate the RH (lvf/RH), or in the right visual field, targeting the LH (rvf/LH). The N400 component of the ERP was affected by predictability in both presentation sides, but by novelty only in rvf/LH. Two distinct late frontal positive effects were observed. Word predictability modulated a frontal positivity with a LH focus, but semantic novelty modulated a frontal positivity focused in RH. This is the first demonstration that the frontal positivity may be composed of multiple overlapping components with distinct functional and anatomical characteristics. Extending contemporary accounts of the frontal positivity, we suggest that both frontal positivities reflect learning mechanisms involving prediction based on statistical regularities in language (LH) and world knowledge (RH).

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Male
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult