Conventional metaphors in longer passages evoke affective brain response

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Abstract

Conventional metaphorical sentences such as She's asweetchild have been found to elicit greater amygdala activation than matched literal sentences (e.g., She's akindchild). In the present fMRI study, this finding is strengthened and extended with naturalistic stimuli involving longer passages and a range of conventional metaphors. In particular, a greater number of activation peaks (four) were found in the bilateral amygdala when passages containing conventional metaphors were read than when their matched literal versions were read (a single peak); while the direct contrast between metaphorical and literal passages did not show significant amygdala activation, parametric analysis revealed that BOLD signal changes in the left amygdala correlated with an increase in metaphoricity ratings across all stories. Moreover, while a measure of complexity was positively correlated with an increase in activation of a broad bilateral network mainly involving the temporal lobes, complexity was not predictive of amygdala activity. Thus, the results suggest that amygdala activation is not simply a result of stronger overall activity related to language comprehension, but is more specific to the processing of metaphorical language.

Significance statement:

This work is the first to show that conventional metaphorical language in naturalistic longer passages that includes a range of metaphors elicits more activation in the amygdala–an area recognized to be involved in emotional processing–than carefully matched literal control passages. We probe this finding with parametric analyses using a measure of syntactic complexity and subjective judgments of metaphoricity. While complexity correlates with more overall bilateral activation of the temporal lobes, it does not correlate with amygdala activation. Instead, amygdala activation correlates with metaphoricity, suggesting that the increase in emotional salience is specific to metaphoricity and is not simply a result of an overall increase in brain activity in regions associated with language comprehension.

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