Figures of speech -- understanding idioms requires both sides of the brain

September 14, 2009

Is it better to treat someone with kid gloves or to treat them carefully? Researchers in Italy have investigated how the brain recognises that the first phrase means the same as the second. Publishing in the open access journal BMC Neuroscience, the researchers suggest that we use both hemispheres to understand idioms.

Dr Alice Proverbio from the University of Milano-Bicocca and colleagues used electrophysiological and LORETA source reconstruction analysis to investigate the role of the two cerebral hemispheres in idiom comprehension. By analysing the brain activity of 11 students, they found that idiomatic sentences activated the right middle temporal gyrus (after 350ms) and the right medial frontal gyrus (at 270-300 and 500-780ms).

All phrases were matched for length and familiarity, yet the students took longer to associate an idiomatic phrase with a linked word than to associate a literal phrase with its linked word. This suggests that idioms are more difficult to understand and denote superior levels of language use and processing.

The findings also shed light on whether the brain tries to understand a familiar idiom literally before it understands it as a metaphor. The left inferior frontal gyrus, the part of the thought to be used to suppress literal meaning, was not specifically activated by idiom comprehension; however, the limbic regions, which are involved in emotional responses, were (at 400-450ms).

Dr Proverbio concludes, "though the interpretation of language involves widespread activation bilaterally, the right hemisphere has a special role in the comprehension of idiomatic meaning."

More information: The role of left and right hemispheres in the comprehension of idiomatic language: an electrical study; Alice M Proverbio, Nicola Crotti, Alberto Zani and Roberta Adorni; BMC Neuroscience (in press);

Source: BioMed Central (news : web)

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not rated yet Sep 14, 2009
Um. Not much of a discovery. They've been telling writers for years that idioms are difficult for foreign language speakers to understand.

As for "needing both sides of the brain" ... did they check against people with impared functions?
5 / 5 (2) Sep 15, 2009
Um. Maybe you should change your name to "knocknowledge"? That seems to be your favorite role here. This is the second time I've noticed you taking an attitude of "been there, done that" towards some new information at If you don't like this site and the "knowledge" it provides, why do you come here?

Besides, nothing was even mentioned in the article about foreign language speakers-- what's your point there? It is apparent that this study pertains to native speakers, and shows involvement by the right middle temporal gyrus and the right medial frontal gyrus in understanding idiom-- and actually this is quite an important contribution since rarely if ever has much language ability been shown to reside outside the left hemisphere.

Or perhaps the fact that the research also shows that some people have "superior levels of language use and processing" might have some significance here.


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