Event Abstract

An electrophysiological perspective on the cognitive mechanisms involved in processing different types of figurative language

  • 1 Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Italy
  • 2 Istituto Universitario di Studi Superiori di Pavia (IUSS), Italy

Psycholinguistic research on how people comprehend non literal language very often contrasted the Gricean “standard pragmatic model”, positing that the analysis of the literal meaning of an expression precedes the computation of the associated figurative meaning, supporting instead the hypothesis of “direct access” (Gibbs, 1984), according to which the figurative meaning is computed early along the processing stream. This debate has been mainly informed by evidence from experiments using traditional off-line and on-line methods (see review in Giora, 2002), such as questionnaires, self-paced reading times or lexical decision paradigms, and has not been settled yet. The present contribution aims at reviewing new and existing evidence collected with EEG measures, which strongly suggests that a) whether the access is direct or indirect it depends on the kind of figurative phenomena under scrutiny and b) neurolinguistic research should move further towards more specific questions and a more detailed description of how figurative language comprehension is achieved. EEG measures (Luck, 2014) such as Event-Related Potentials (ERP) and Time Frequency Representations (TFR) do provide pivotal evidence on the cognitive mechanisms that underlie language comprehension for their fine-grained temporal resolution and the ability of discriminating among qualitatively different mental processes. In particular, we argue that three ERP components are greatly involved in figurative language processing: N400, LAN and P600/LPC components. While the N400 reflects lexical-semantic processing shaped by context, the LAN is involved in incongruity detection, and the LPC, in its frontal and parietal modulations, can be taken to reflect later inferential processes. Once this functional distinction is acknowledged, neurolinguistic evidence based on EEG can provide a coherent picture of the main processing differences between instances of figurative language and their comparison with literal language. Lexical-semantic composition mechanisms of the literal meaning of the words that constitute an idiomatic expression such as break the ice is switched off to some extent (reflected in N400 reduction or power changes in the gamma band of the EEG), likely due to the conventional (and thus lexicalized) meaning of idiomatic “configurations” of words (e.g., Canal, Pesciarelli, Vespignani, Molinaro & Cacciari, in press; Rommers, Dijkstra & Bastiaansen, 2013; Vespignani, Canal, Molinaro, Fonda & Cacciari, 2010). Lexical-semantic processes associated with larger N400 components are instead strongly involved during metaphor processing (Coulson & Van Petten, 2002; Weiland, Bambini & Schumacher, 2014; Di Paola, Canal, Ricci & Bambini, in prep), supporting hypotheses that foresee a fundamental role of the literal meaning of the expression as an anchor for the ad hoc conceptual representation of the metaphor (e.g., Carston, 2010; Rubio-Fernandez, 2007). This seems to be especially the case when metaphors occur in minimal sentence context (Weiland et al., 2014) or when they are particularly difficult (for literary metaphor see Bambini, Resta, Canal & Grimaldi, submitted), whereas, when a sufficiently supportive context is provided, lexical-semantic effort is reduced and only inferential processes may be involved, reflected by the LPC component (e.g., Bambini, Bertini, Schaeken, Stella & Di Russo, 2016). Interestingly, irony is associated with effects on the LPC component rather than the N400, suggesting that irony comprehension heavily hinges on inferential processes (Regel, Gunter & Friederici, 2011; Spotorno, Cheylus, Van Der Henst & Noveck, 2013). In jokes comprehension, the importance of detecting discourse incongruity (related with LAN effects) for triggering the re-interpretation of the discourse (associated with LPC effects) and leading to mirth and laugh (Canal, Bischetti, Di Paola & Bambini, 2017; Coulson & Kutas, 2001), further provides support to dual stage models of humor processing (e.g., Suls, 1972). Finally, we highlight that modulations of the LPC/P600 component are ubiquitous across all kinds of figurative language (idioms, proverbs, metaphors, jokes, and irony) and strongly point to the common role of later inferential processes, which are needed to adjust or revise the mental representation of the discourse context. The review of the existing evidence in a coherent psychophysiological framework does not only provide evidence supporting specific theoretical hypotheses, but also indicates relatively unexplored lines of research, including the role of individual characteristics in affecting processing, and the need for further research to find commonalities as well as differences across pragmatic phenomena.


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Keywords: ERPs, LAN, N400, P600, Pragmatic inferences, Humor, idiomatic expressions, metaphor comprehension, figurative language comprehension

Conference: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing , Genoa, Italy, 10 Jun - 11 Jun, 2017.

Presentation Type: Oral Presentation

Topic: Processing of figurative language

Citation: Canal P and Bambini V (2019). An electrophysiological perspective on the cognitive mechanisms involved in processing different types of figurative language. Front. Psychol. Conference Abstract: XPRAG.it Behavioral and Neural Evidence on Pragmatic Processing . doi: 10.3389/conf.fpsyg.2017.71.00011

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Received: 17 May 2017; Published Online: 25 Jan 2019.

* Correspondence: PhD. Paolo Canal, Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa, Pisa, Italy, paolo.canal@iusspavia.it