Concrete processing of action metaphors: Evidence from ERP

Vicky T. Lai, Olivia Howerton, Rutvik H. Desai

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


The timing of sensory-motor activation during the comprehension of action verbs used in a metaphorical sense is not well understood. In the present Event Related Potential (ERP) study, participants read verbs in metaphoric (The church bent the rules), literal-concrete (The bodyguard bent the rod), and literal-abstract (The church altered the rules) conditions. The literal concreteness effect, obtained by subtracting the abstract from the concrete, was revealed as an N400, frontally distributed. A metaphoric effect, obtained in the metaphor-abstract contrast, was a widespread N400, and included the frontal response seen in the literal concreteness effect. Another metaphoric effect, obtained in the metaphor-concrete contrast, was a posterior N400. Further time window analyses showed that the literal concreteness effect primarily came from 200 to 300 ms, the metaphoric-concrete effect primarily came from 200 to 400 ms, and the metaphoric-abstract effect was significant throughout 200–500 ms. These results suggest that a concrete but underspecified meaning consistent with metaphoric and literal readings, was activated early and was sustained throughout the 200–500 ms window. We concluded that the metaphoric sense is based in concrete action semantics, even if these senses are underspecified.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)202-209
Number of pages8
JournalBrain Research
StatePublished - Jul 1 2019


  • Concreteness
  • ERP
  • Grounded cognition
  • Metaphor
  • Semantics
  • Sentence processing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • Molecular Biology
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Developmental Biology


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