Affective iconic words benefit from additional sound-meaning integration in the left amygdala

Hum Brain Mapp. 2019 Dec 15;40(18):5289-5300. doi: 10.1002/hbm.24772. Epub 2019 Aug 24.


Recent studies have shown that a similarity between sound and meaning of a word (i.e., iconicity) can help more readily access the meaning of that word, but the neural mechanisms underlying this beneficial role of iconicity in semantic processing remain largely unknown. In an fMRI study, we focused on the affective domain and examined whether affective iconic words (e.g., high arousal in both sound and meaning) activate additional brain regions that integrate emotional information from different domains (i.e., sound and meaning). In line with our hypothesis, affective iconic words, compared to their non-iconic counterparts, elicited additional BOLD responses in the left amygdala known for its role in multimodal representation of emotions. Functional connectivity analyses revealed that the observed amygdalar activity was modulated by an interaction of iconic condition and activations in two hubs representative for processing sound (left superior temporal gyrus) and meaning (left inferior frontal gyrus) of words. These results provide a neural explanation for the facilitative role of iconicity in language processing and indicate that language users are sensitive to the interaction between sound and meaning aspect of words, suggesting the existence of iconicity as a general property of human language.

Keywords: affective iconicity; fMRI; language and emotion; left amygdala; neurocognitive poetics; phonaesthetics; sound symbolism.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acoustic Stimulation / methods*
  • Adult
  • Amygdala / diagnostic imaging*
  • Amygdala / physiology
  • Female
  • Functional Laterality* / physiology
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods*
  • Male
  • Semantics*
  • Young Adult