Miriam Faust vs Alexander Rapp

The role of the right hemisphere in figurative language processing
Chair: Christine Chiarello

Friday, November 8, 2:45 – 4:15 pm

Miriam Faust is Professor of Psychology, Director of the Brain and Language Laboratory at the Gonda Multidisciplinary Brain Research Center and Vice-Rector at Bar-Ilan University (Israel). She and her colleagues investigate the neurobiological basis of language using a variety of research techniques, including imaging, behavioral and computational methods. Faust and colleagues currently focus on two research projects. One examines the neurolinguistic mechanisms underlying the comprehension of metaphoric language, emphasizing hemispheric involvement in processing novel metaphors taken from poetry. This research has recently expanded to the identification of neurobiological mechanisms involved in semantic creativity as well as in creative processing in additional, related areas. Another current research project focuses on phonological and semantic processing in native versus foreign language.
Abstract: While the role of the right hemisphere (RH) in processing nonliteral language is highly controversial, there is much evidence indicating that the comprehension of novel metaphoric expressions requires strong RH involvement.  The findings of a series of studies using a variety of experimental techniques, including behavioral, fMRI, MEG, ERP and TMS, provide convergent evidence linking the RH, particularly right posterior superior temporal areas, with the ability to integrate the meanings of two seemingly unrelated concepts into a meaningful novel metaphoric expression. These findings indicate that semantic processing in the intact brain is associated with distinct and flexible patterns of hemispheric interaction that is characterized by higher RH involvement for processing novel metaphors taken from poetry compared to literal, conventional metaphoric and meaningless expressions (Faust, 2012). Furthermore, research on persons with Asperger and with Schizophrenia support RH unique contribution to the comprehension of novel conceptual combinations by demonstrating the negative effects of either reduced or excessive RH involvement on the ability to understand novel metaphors.  The findings on novel metaphor processing thus suggest that the expert, rule-based semantic mechanisms of the left hemisphere are not sufficient for coping with the rule- violating, emergent and more creative aspects of this type of nonliteral language. This claim has significant implications for understanding the neurobiological processes involved in word meaning extension and is consistent with several models, including the Fine-Coarse Semantic Coding Theory (e.g., Jung Beeman, 2005) and the Graded Salience Hypothesis (Giora, 2007).


Dr. Alexander M. Rapp is senior psychiatrist and researcher at the Department of Psychiatry, University of Tuebingen; Germany. His research interests include the functional neuroanatomy of nonliteral language in healthy subjects and patients with psychiatric diseases and the role of the right hemisphere in the language pathology of schizophrenia.

Abstract:  The right hemisphere processing hypothesis for metaphors and figurative language is popular and somewhat plausible, but how about the evidence for right hemisphere involvement in figurative language comprehension? In this debate, I will take the position against a pre-eminent role of the right hemisphere for figurative language. The most-cited study in the context of right hemisphere figurative language is a PET-study from the 1990´s with only 6 subjects. However, until now, approximately 40 functional magnetic resonance imaging studies have investigated figurative language comprehension. Although a substantial number has the hypothesis of a predominant role of the right hemisphere, there is a substantial number of studies with negative findings. A quantitative, coordinate based-analysis fails to indicate a pre-eminent role of the right hemisphere. Findings from lesion studies are heterogeneous.