ERP evidence for conceptual mappings and comparison processes during the comprehension of conventional and novel metaphors

Brain Lang. 2013 Dec;127(3):484-96. doi: 10.1016/j.bandl.2013.09.010. Epub 2013 Oct 29.


Cognitive linguists suggest that understanding metaphors requires activation of conceptual mappings between the involved concepts. We tested whether mappings are indeed in use during metaphor comprehension, and what mapping means as a cognitive process with Event-Related Potentials. Participants read literal, conventional metaphorical, novel metaphorical, and anomalous target sentences preceded by primes with related or unrelated mappings. Experiment 1 used sentence-primes to activate related mappings, and Experiment 2 used simile-primes to induce comparison thinking. In the unprimed conditions of both experiments, metaphors elicited N400s more negative than the literals. In Experiment 1, related sentence-primes reduced the metaphor-literal N400 difference in conventional, but not in novel metaphors. In Experiment 2, related simile-primes reduced the metaphor-literal N400 difference in novel, but not clearly in conventional metaphors. We suggest that mapping as a process occurs in metaphors, and the ways in which it can be facilitated by comparison differ between conventional and novel metaphors.

Keywords: Analogy; Categorization; Comparison; Conventionality; ERP; Metaphor; N400; Priming; Sentence processing; Simile.

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Brain Mapping*
  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Male
  • Signal Processing, Computer-Assisted
  • Young Adult