The grammar of visual narrative: Neural evidence for constituent structure in sequential image comprehension

Neuropsychologia. 2014 Nov;64:63-70. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2014.09.018. Epub 2014 Sep 18.


Constituent structure has long been established as a central feature of human language. Analogous to how syntax organizes words in sentences, a narrative grammar organizes sequential images into hierarchic constituents. Here we show that the brain draws upon this constituent structure to comprehend wordless visual narratives. We recorded neural responses as participants viewed sequences of visual images (comics strips) in which blank images either disrupted individual narrative constituents or fell at natural constituent boundaries. A disruption of either the first or the second narrative constituent produced a left-lateralized anterior negativity effect between 500 and 700ms. Disruption of the second constituent also elicited a posteriorly-distributed positivity (P600) effect. These neural responses are similar to those associated with structural violations in language and music. These findings provide evidence that comprehenders use a narrative structure to comprehend visual sequences and that the brain engages similar neurocognitive mechanisms to build structure across multiple domains.

Keywords: Comics; Constituent structure; ERPs; Grammar; Narrative; Visual language.

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology*
  • Comprehension / physiology*
  • Electroencephalography
  • Evoked Potentials / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Male
  • Narration
  • Photic Stimulation
  • Visual Perception / physiology*
  • Young Adult