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Dr. Gwenda Schmidt, Hope College

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It has been observed that words depicting actions (“jump”) produce activation of the primary motor cortex or motion processing regions of the brain in addition to language areas. Thus the first aim of current study was to investigate whether the modality of words (motion “skydive” versus auditory “babble”) would have an effect on the brain processes underlying semantic processing. Secondly, some studies have observed that the neural substrate for the semantic processing of figurative language may be different than for literal language; however, results are conflicting. We suggest this is because of the many confounds in existing studies comparing literal and figurative language processing. When these confounds are accounted for, there may be no difference between literal and figurative language processing in the brain. The current study employed a 2x2x4 design with the factors of modality (auditory, motion), figurativeness (literal, metaphor) and scalp location (right anterior, left anterior, left posterior, right posterior). Stimuli were well controlled on numerous dimensions such as familiarity, naturalness, and imageability. Participants (N=16) were right handed, native English speakers. After presentation of each sentence, participants completed a comprehension task. The electrical activity at the scalp was measured with an electroencephalography system (EEG) during this task. This data was used to calculate the amplitude of the N400 (a negative waveform at 400ms post-stimulus that is an index of semantic processing) across the scalp. A 3-way MANOVA revealed a significant interaction between modality and scalp location, but no other significant effects or interactions. This suggests that the two modalities we looked at have different neural substrates, but that literal and figurative language share a common substrate.

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