The role of literal meaning in figurative language comprehension: evidence from masked priming ERP

Front Hum Neurosci. 2014 Aug 4;8:583. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2014.00583. eCollection 2014.


The role of literal meaning during the construction of meaning that goes beyond pure literal composition was investigated by combining cross-modal masked priming and ERPs. This experimental design was chosen to compare two conflicting theoretical positions on this topic. The indirect access account claims that literal aspects are processed first, and additional meaning components are computed only if no satisfactory interpretation is reached. In contrast, the direct access approach argues that figurative aspects can be accessed immediately. We presented metaphors (These lawyers are hyenas, Experiment 1a and 1b) and producer-for-product metonymies (The boy read Böll, Experiment 2a and 2b) with and without a prime word that was semantically relevant to the literal meaning of the target word (furry and talented, respectively). In the presentation without priming, metaphors revealed a biphasic N400-Late Positivity pattern, while metonymies showed an N400 only. We interpret the findings within a two-phase language architecture where contextual expectations guide initial access (N400) and precede pragmatic adjustment resulting in reconceptualization (Late Positivity). With masked priming, the N400-difference was reduced for metaphors and vanished for metonymies. This speaks against the direct access view that predicts a facilitating effect for the literal condition only and hence would predict the N400-difference to increase. The results are more consistent with indirect access accounts that argue for facilitation effects for both conditions and consequently for consistent or even smaller N400-amplitude differences. This combined masked priming ERP paradigm therefore yields new insights into the role of literal meaning in the online composition of figurative language.

Keywords: N400; experimental pragmatics; late positivity; literal meaning; masked priming; metaphor; metonymy.