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When metaphors go literally beyond their territories: The impact of age on figurative language



As one of the most integrated components of language, the understand-ing of metaphors has sparked some of the greatest interest and debate with regard to how and where it is sustained by the brain. Traditionally, the right hemisphere was thought to be the locus of metaphor comprehension. However, the recent literature reported in this article suggests that the processing of metaphors is the product of a complex interplay and cooperation between the two hemispheres. In fact, the question of how the aging brain processes metaphors remains unresolved. The present study aims to provide insight into the nature of changes in the processing of metaphors in normal aging. We describe the different patterns of interhemispheric activation in younger and older adults during processing of literal and conventional meta-phorical meanings of words. A total of 10 younger adults and 10 older adults were scanned via 3T functional magnetic resonance imaging while perform-ing a semantic judgment task using pairs of words: targets with literal or conventional metaphorical relationships and distractors paired with concrete or abstract words. The metaphorical-literal contrast showed significant increased activity in the superior frontal gyrus bilaterally in both groups and in the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior cingulate cortex in the older group only. Both groups showed a left lateralization. We concluded that aging is associated with changes in the pattern of neural activity when processing conventional metaphors. The results are analyzed in the light of the recent literature proposing age-related neurofunctional reorganization, namely the HAROLD and PASA phenomena in the context of language processing.
When metaphors go literally beyond their territories:
The impact of age on figurative language
Beatriz Mejía-Constaín, Oury Monchi, Nathalie Walter, Marianne
Arsenault, Noureddine Senhadji & Yves Joanette
As one of the most integrated components of language, the understand-
ing of metaphors has sparked some of the greatest interest and debate with
regard to how and where it is sustained by the brain. Traditionally, the
right hemisphere was thought to be the locus of metaphor comprehension.
However, the recent literature reported in this article suggests that the
processing of metaphors is the product of a complex interplay and cooperation
between the two hemispheres. In fact, the question of how the aging brain
processes metaphors remains unresolved. The present study aims to provide
insight into the nature of changes in the processing of metaphors in normal
aging. We describe the different patterns of interhemispheric activation in
younger and older adults during processing of literal and conventional meta-
phorical meanings of words. A total of 10 younger adults and 10 older adults
were scanned via 3T functional magnetic resonance imaging while perform-
ing a semantic judgment task using pairs of words: targets with literal or
conventional metaphorical relationships and distractors paired with concrete
or abstract words. The metaphorical-literal contrast showed significant
increased activity in the superior frontal gyrus bilaterally in both groups and
in the inferior frontal gyrus and the posterior cingulate cortex in the older
group only. Both groups showed a left lateralization. We concluded that aging
is associated with changes in the pattern of neural activity when processing
conventional metaphors. The results are analyzed in the light of the recent
literature proposing age-related neurofunctional reorganization, namely the
HAROLD and PASA phenomena in the context of language processing.
Keywords: aging, language, conventional metaphors, functional reorganiza-
tion, functional magnetic resonance imaging
Italian Journal of Linguistics 22.1 (2010), pp. 41-60 (Received December 2009)
The impact of age on figurative language
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... However, this does limit the representativeness of results for the general population. Mejía-Constaín et al. (2010) report age as an influential factor on figurative language processing, and the level of (higher) education has been proven to interact with general language abilities and reading levels (cf. Levine et al., 2020). ...
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The processing of metaphors and idioms has been the subject of neuroscientific research for several decades. However, results are often contradictory, which can be traced back to inconsistent terminology and stimulus control. In this systematic review of research methods, we analyse linguistic aspects of 116 research papers which used EEG, fMRI, PET, MEG, or NIRS to investigate the neural processing of the two figurative subtypes metaphor and idiom. We critically examine the theoretical foundations as well as stimulus control by performing a systematic literature synthesis according to the PRISMA guidelines. We explicitly do not analyse the findings of the studies but instead focus on four primary aspects: definitions of figurative language and its subtypes, linguistic theory behind the studies, control for factors influencing figurative language processing, and the relationship between theoretical and operational definitions. We found both a lack and a broad variety in existing definitions and operationalisation, especially in regard to familiarity and conventionality. We identify severe obstacles in the comparability and validation potential of the results of the papers in our review corpus. We propose the development of a consensus in fundamental terminology and more transparency in the reporting of stimulus design in the research on figurative language processing.
... Another hypothesis related to posterior-anterior shift in ageing (PASA) refers to reduction in central nervous system (CNS) activity in the posterior regions accompanied with compensatory overactivation of prefrontal cortex (Davis et al., 2008). However, Mejía-Constaín et al. (2010) argue that the PASA model does not apply to age-related changes in language capacities, which explains the ability to understand figurative language even at an old age. The aforementioned models stress the fact that patterns of ageing brain activity reflect compensation processes that are not neutral when it comes to cognitive functioning. ...
Background The ability to understand figurative language, including metaphors and proverbs, decreases with age, although the phenomenon is not universal. Cognitive capacities and education play an important role in the competence connected with figurative language use and comprehension in people during the second half of life. Aims To identify possible similarities and differences in task performance by subjects representing middle adulthood (40–49 and 50–59 years old) and late adulthood (60–69 and 70–92 years old). Additionally, the analyses took into account factors significantly affecting the results, that is, tasks type (metaphors versus proverbs), the way the answer is given (open-ended versus multiple choice) and types of answers (abstract and concrete). This study also aimed to identify some cognitive correlates of task completion. Methods & Procedures A total of 86 Caucasian subjects, aged 40–92 years, participated in this study (Mwhole group = 62.37, SD = 15.53); the group included 20 subjects aged 40–49 years (Mage = 45.4; SD = 3.05), 20 aged 50–59 years (Mage = 55.50; SD = 2.64), 20 aged 60–69 years (Mage = 64.40; SD = 2.78), and 26 aged 70–92 years (Mage = 79.15; SD = 6.27). A total of 20 well-known Polish metaphors and 20 popular Polish proverbs were used to assess the level of proverb and metaphor comprehension. The Montreal Cognitive Assessment Scale and Vocabulary subtest of the Polish version of WAIS-R were applied to assess the cognitive functions. Outcomes & Results The results of the analyses suggest that there are differences as well as certain similarities between the groups. At 70+ years of age, the ability to explain and comprehend metaphors and proverbs decreases when compared with younger adults. In the 70+ group, the ability to grasp the meaning of both metaphors and proverbs is similar, unlike in the younger groups which present a better ability to explain and comprehend metaphors than proverbs. The conditions related to the types of tasks, that is, spontaneous interpretation and choice of responses, do not affect scores of the oldest subjects. Conclusions The analysis of response types, that is, abstract versus concrete, shows that, compared with younger groups, people aged 70+ years tend to less frequently provide abstract explanations and more often give concrete (but correct) responses, referring to situational data or examples from everyday life. Moreover, attention, short-term/delayed memory and lexical reserve influence the ability to use and comprehend figurative language to a varied degree. What this paper adds What is already known on the subject • Studies focusing on metaphor and proverb interpretation by people in middle and late adulthood are rather scarce, and what is more, they provide inconclusive results. Research has shown that the capacities related to attention and memory, as well as language resources and executive functions, all deteriorate in older people, which negatively affects their ability to understand metaphors and proverbs. However, varied methods are applied to assess these skills, which may explain why the related findings are inconsistent. What this paper adds to existing knowledge • The novelty of this study lies in the fact that the analyses took into account the type of task (metaphors versus proverbs), the method of responding (open-ended versus multiple-choice) and the nature of the answer (abstract versus concrete). This allowed us to highlight intergroup differences and to show specific characteristics of proverb and metaphor spontaneous interpretation and choice of correct answers. The results were compared among the participants representing relatively narrow age ranges classified as middle and late adulthood. What are the potential or actual clinical implications of this work? • Analysis of how people in middle and late adulthood interpret metaphors and proverbs might constitute an element of preliminary screening assessment showing whether a decrease in this capacity is in the normal range or if it reflects a serious cognitive decline. It would be worthwhile if the diagnostic process included varied task designs, that is, both metaphors and proverbs, as well as spontaneous interpretation and multiple-choice, as well as varied types of responses.
... Studies on the brain correlates of language processing in aging have highlighted possible compensatory strategies, for instance related to the recruitment of the right hemisphere (Diaz et al., 2016). For pragmatic processing specifically, there is initial evidence that aging is associated with modifications in the brain activity for metaphor comprehension, affecting the patterns of interhemispheric cooperation (Mejía-Constaín et al., 2010). About brain reorganization following pragmatic training, however, the literature offers only one single-case study of a patient with schizophrenia. ...
Among all aspects of the linguistic and communicative competence, pragmatics seems especially vulnerable in aging, due also to cognitive decline. However, pragmatics has never been considered as an intervention target in healthy aging. Here we tested the effects of a novel training program to improve pragmatics (PragmaCom) in older adults, compared with an active cognitive control group in a randomized-controlled-trial design. Both the PragmaCom group and the control group improved in pragmatic skills such as understanding metaphors and avoiding off-topic speech, indicating that it is possible to improve pragmatics in aging both with a specific training and with a cognitive training. Individual cognitive factors predicted pragmatic improvement in the control group, while in the PragmaCom group benefits were less dependent on individual characteristics. We discuss the results in terms of pragmatic plasticity, highlighting the importance of these findings for promoting older adults' social communication and well-being.
... Starting with the age factor, neuroimaging data are revealing important mechanisms of brain maturation and plasticity. Data show that adults make use of a more confined language network than children (Brauer et al. 2011); with aging, compensatory recruitment of additional resources takes place to support good performance (Stine-Morrow & Shake 2009), as for instance in metaphor comprehension (Mejía-Constaín et al. 2010). Gender, on the contrary, has produced non-conclusive findings, suggesting that the male and the female brain work the same in representing and processing language (Wallentin 2009). ...
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Neurolinguistics is the study of language-brain relations. Its final goal is the comprehension and explanation of the neural bases for language knowledge and use. Neurolinguistics is by its nature an interdisciplinary enterprise, and straddles the borders between linguistics and other disciplines that are connected to the study of the mind/brain (mainly cognitive psychology, neuropsychology and cognitive neuroscience). When approached from the point of view of the neurosciences, neurolinguistics focuses on how the brain behaves in language processes, both in healthy and pathological conditions; conversely, from a linguistics standpoint, neurolinguistics aims at clarifying how language structures can be instantiated in the brain, i.e. how patterns and rules exhibited in human languages are represented and grounded in the brain. In addition, neurolinguistics has a fundamental clinical impact for assessment and treatment of patients suffering from aphasia and other language pathologies.
... These results are consistent with what is commonly observed in many neuropsychological tests (Strauss et al., 2006). Moreover, these results match with experimental research on the effects of age on specific pragmatic abilities, where aging is showed to affect the comprehension of jokes (Mak and Carpenter, 2007), written text (Borella et al., 2011) and the neural response for metaphor (Bonnaud et al., 2002;Mejía-Constaín et al., 2010). Studies on aging and pragmatics also pointed out that the decline in pragmatic performance in the aged population is probably related to a conundrum of other cognitive abilities (Mak and Carpenter, 2007), and it is possibly reduced once we factor out the working memory load (Borella et al., 2007). ...
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The Assessment of Pragmatic Abilities and Cognitive Substrates (APACS) test is a new tool to evaluate pragmatic abilities in patients with acquired communicative deficits, ranging from schizophrenia to neurodegenerative diseases. APACS focuses on two main domains, namely discourse and non-literal language, combining traditional tasks with refined linguistic materials in Italian, in a unified framework inspired by language pragmatics. The test includes six tasks (Interview, Description, Narratives, Figurative Language 1, Humor, Figurative Language 2) and three composite scores (Pragmatic Productions, Pragmatic Comprehension, APACS Total). Psychometric properties and normative data were computed on a sample of 119 healthy participants representative of the general population. The analysis revealed acceptable internal consistency and good test-retest reliability for almost every APACS task, suggesting that items are coherent and performance is consistent over time. Factor analysis supports the validity of the test, revealing two factors possibly related to different facets and substrates of the pragmatic competence. Finally, excellent match between APACS items and scores and the pragmatic constructs measured in the test was evidenced by experts’ evaluation of content validity. The performance on APACS showed a general effect of demographic variables, with a negative effect of age and a positive effect of education. The norms were calculated by means of state-of-the-art regression methods. Overall, APACS is a valuable tool for the assessment of pragmatic deficits in verbal communication. The short duration and easiness of administration make the test especially suitable to use in clinical settings. In presenting APACS, we also aim at promoting the inclusion of pragmatics in the assessment practice, as a relevant dimension in defining the patient’s cognitive profile, given its vital role for communication and social interaction in daily life. The combined use of APACS with other neuropsychological tests could also improve our understanding of the cognitive substrates of pragmatic abilities and their breakdown.
... One important aspect emerging from the literature is that the brain network underlying metaphor processing is dynamically activated depending on the linguistic and contextual properties of the materials: one parameter capable of sensibly influencing brain activity is the conventionality vs. novelty of the metaphorical expressions, which seems to modulate brain activity especially at the level of the right hemisphere (Schmidt et al. 2010). Also, subject-related factors, such as age, can modulate the extension of the network of brain areas recruited for metaphor comprehension, which seems to be wider in older than in younger individuals (Mejía-Constaín et al. 2010 Bambini et al. (2011) Similar neurofunctional architectures are reported for other types of nonliteral meaning, namely idiomatic expressions. Results suggest that there is not a right hemisphere prevalence, but rather a bilateral (especially left) prefrontal and temporal involvement. ...
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The term neuropragmatics indicates an emerging interdisciplinary field devoted to the study of the neural basis of pragmatic abilities, i.e. the neural underpinnings of the mental processes involved in communication. In other words, neuropragmatics revolves around the mind/brain processes underlying the construction of context-appropriate meanings for the purpose of the communicative exchange. By taking into account the contextual dimension, neuropragmatics focuses on the activity of communicating, and deals with how communicative agents’ minds brains represent and share intentions, beliefs, situations and the various components of context in order to construct a shared meaning and to engage in successful communication. On the one hand, neuropragmatics draws on notions and frameworks put forward by philosophers, linguists and psychologists in modelling the linguistic, cognitive and social aspects of communicative interaction. On the other hand, it is strongly connected with the wider domains of the neurosciences of language and social cognition, encompassing research in both healthy and pathological conditions, and applying different techniques – from neuropsychological observations to functional neuroimaging. At the intersection of these many traditions lays the aim of finding theoretically refined and neurally plausible models of pragmatic processes. Special test-beds in neuropragmatics are communicative events where context plays a pivotal role in completing implicit and linguistically underspecified meanings, namely complex speech acts, figurative meanings and discourse phenomena. The choice of testing especially demanding processes reflects both a research tradition – as indirect speech acts and non-literal meanings are well-established topics in the pragmatic literature – and an experimental strategy, devoted to better isolate and measure the cognitive demands posed by the recognition of the intended meaning in the communicative context.1 Indeed, pragmatic processes are not limited to specific and complex kinds of exchange but apply automatically to fine-tune the interpretation of virtually every word (Wilson 2003) and every communicative action (Bara 2010, 2011). The ultimate goal of neuropragmatics is thus to describe the neuro-functional architecture of pragmatics as a system underpinning the whole domain of appropriate communicative behaviour in natural contexts of use. Accordingly, in the last years innovative protocols that closely mirror every-day communicative situations are being designed and employed, in the direction of potentiating the ecological validity of the neuropragmatic enterprise.
... There is also fMRI evidence in favor of a more distributed bilateral configuration: see [1] on conceptual metaphors in Chinese and [73] on adjectives carrying conventional metaphorical meanings (with a more widespread distribution in older than in younger participants). Bilaterality finds further support in ERP data coupled with hemifield presentation [26]. ...
Prior neuroimaging studies on metaphor comprehension have tended to focus on the role of the right hemisphere, without reaching consensus and leaving aside the functional architecture of this process. The present work aimed to break down metaphor comprehension into its functional components. The study rationale is two-fold: on the one hand, the large-scale network model as emerging in cognitive neuroscience led us to a consideration of metaphor as supported by a distributed and bilateral network; on the other hand, we based on the accounts of figurative language put forward in pragmatics and cognitive science to postulate a decomposition of such a network into multiple sub-systems. During scanning, participants implicitly processed metaphorical (familiar and unfamiliar) and non-metaphorical passages, while being explicitly involved in an adjective matching task to be performed after reading the target passages. Several regions showed greater activity to metaphors as compared to non-metaphors, including left and right inferior frontal gyrus, right superior temporal gyrus, left angular gyrus, and anterior cingulate. This pattern of activations, markedly bilateral, can be decomposed into circumscribed functional sub-systems mediating different aspects of metaphor resolution, as foreseen in the pragmatic and cognitive literature: (a) the conceptual/pragmatic machinery in the bilateral inferior frontal gyrus and in the left angular gyrus, which supports the integration of linguistic material and world knowledge in context; (b) the attentional component in the anterior cingulate and prefrontal areas, which is set to monitor and filter for the relevant aspects of context and for the appropriate meanings; (c) the Theory of Mind system along the right superior temporal sulcus, which deals with the recognition of speakers' communicative intentions and is more extensively activated by unfamiliar metaphors. The results have several implications for the field of neuropragmatics, especially on the neuropsychological side and on the right hemisphere hypothesis.
An increasing number of studies have investigated non-literal language, including metaphors, idioms, metonymy, or irony, with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). However, key questions regarding its neuroanatomy remain controversial. In this work, we used coordinate-based activation-likelihood estimations to merge available fMRI data on non-literal language. A literature search identified 38 fMRI studies on non-literal language (24 metaphor studies, 14 non-salient stimuli studies, 7 idiom studies, 8 irony studies, and 1 metonymy study). Twenty-eight studies with direct comparisons of non-literal and literal studies were included in the main meta-analysis. Sub-analyses for metaphors, idioms, irony, salient metaphors, and non-salient metaphors as well as studies on sentence level were conducted. Studies reported 409 activation foci, of which 129 (32%) were in the right hemisphere. These meta-analyses indicate that a predominantly left lateralised network, including the left and right inferior frontal gyrus; the left, middle, and superior temporal gyrus; and medial prefrontal, superior frontal, cerebellar, parahippocampal, precentral, and inferior parietal regions, is important for non-literal expressions.
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The comprehension of literal and familiar idiomatic (nonliteral) expressions was assessed in (a) a group of adults with left hemisphere (LH) or right hemisphere (RH) brain damage, (b) a group of children who suffered perinatal brain damage to either thekft orright hemisphere, and (c) a control group of healthy children and adults. The normal developmental data showed an expected dissociation between literal and idiomatic phrase comprehension, with idiomatic expressions being learned significantly later. The data from adults with brain damage replicated previous findings of a double dissociation along hemispheric lines, with idiomatic expressions being more impaired by RH than LH damage. In contrast with the adults, the children with focal brain damage showed no association between side of brain damage and comprehension of either familiar idiomatic or literal language. The data support a theory of developmental plasticity of language functions in both the LH and RH.
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Two subtests-Sarcasm Comprehension and Metaphor Comprehension-of Gardner and Brownell's (1986) Right Hemisphere Communication Battery, adapted to Hebrew, were administered to 27 right-brain-damaged (RBD) patients, 31 left-brain-damaged (LBD) patients, and 21 age-matched normal controls. RBD patients tended to score somewhat lower than LBD patients on Sarcasm Comprehension and higher than LBD patients on Metaphor Comprehension. Both patient groups showed a significant impairment in Sarcasm Comprehension relative to normal controls. The difference between RBD patients and normals in Metaphor Comprehension did not reach significance, but there was a significant disadvantage to LBD patients relative to both RBD patients and normal controls. Significant negative correlations between test scores and lesion extent were found for Sarcasm Comprehension in left middle and inferior frontal gyri, and for Metaphor Comprehension in left middle temporal gyrus and the junctional area of the superior temporal and supramarginal gyri on the left. Lesion extent in right hemisphere regions did not correlate with either test performance. The results are interpreted in terms of the recently proposed graded salience hypothesis (Giora, 1997, 1999, in press).
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How do people recognize metaphors? In nominal metaphors, such as "My lawyer is a shark," the metaphor vehicle "shark" refers to an abstract category of predatory crea-tures, not to the basic-level concept, the literal fish we call "shark." People can use the level of abstraction of the metaphor vehicle (shark) as a cue that the expression is in-tended metaphorically rather than literally (Glucksberg & Keysar, 1990). Can the metaphorical use of verbs, as in "he hopped on his bike and flew home" be recog-nized in the same way? We investigated whether the level of abstraction of a verb's referent provides a cue that the verb is used metaphorically rather than literally. We varied level of abstraction of verb use, and obtained judgments of metaphoricity as a function of abstraction level. As with nouns, verbs that are understood at a higher level of abstraction are rated as more metaphorical than when the same verbs could be interpreted at the basic (literal) level. Furthermore, this effect is graded: the higher the level of abstraction, the higher the rated metaphoricity. These findings suggest that people use level of abstraction as a cue to metaphoricity for both nominal and predicative metaphors.
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This event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) study reports on the impact of semantic feature analysis (SFA) therapy on the neural substrate sustaining the recovery from severe anomia in two patients: one participant was diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia (PPA) 2 years before this study; the other participant acquired aphasia 8 years before this study. The participant with PPA showed severe progressive nonfluent aphasia (PNFA), the language profile being similar to a Broca's aphasia; the stroke patient presented with Broca's aphasia and a severe apraxia of speech (AOS). To examine the neural substrate allowing for recovery, both patients received brief and intensive therapy with SFA; behavioral and event-related (ER)-fMRI measures during oral picture naming were obtained pre- and post-therapy. Both patients benefitted from SFA to improve their naming performance. Functional MRI performances on trained and correct pretraining items were contrasted. Adaptive brain plasticity appeared to operate differently in each patient, despite the similarity of naming recovery profiles.
We present a unified statistical theory for assessing the significance of apparent signal observed in noisy difference images. The results are usable in a wide range of applications, including fMRI, but are discussed with particular reference to PET images which represent changes in cerebral blood flow elicited by a specific cognitive or sensorimotor task. Our main result is an estimate of the P-value for local maxima of Gaussian, t, χ2 and F fields over search regions of any shape or size in any number of dimensions. This unifies the P-values for large search areas in 2-D (Friston et al. [1991]: J Cereb Blood Flow Metab 11:690–699) large search regions in 3-D (Worsley et al. [1992]: J Cereb Blood Flow Metab 12:900–918) and the usual uncorrected P-value at a single pixel or voxel.
Although interhemispheric interaction via the callosum is most often conceived as a mechanism for transferring sensory information and coordinating processing between the hemispheres, it will be argued here that the callosum also plays an important role in attentional processing. Experiments will be presented that support this viewpoint, both when attention is conceptualized as a resource and when it is conceptualized as a selective mechanism for gating sensory information. Interhemispheric interaction is posited to aid attentional processing because it allows for a division of labor across the hemispheres, and allows for parallel processing so that operations performed in one hemisphere can be insulated from those executed in the other. Given this additional role for interhemispheric processing, it is suggested that the corpus callosum should be considered a component in the network of neural structures that underlie attentional control.
"Mémoire présenté à la Faculté des études supérieures en vue de l'obtention du grade de M. Sc. en sciences neurologiques." Thèse (M. Sc.)--Université de Montréal, 2004.