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

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Abstract

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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... 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. ...
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... 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. ...
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... 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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... 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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