College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Theses and Dissertations

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idiom, hemispheres, divided visual field, figurative language, pragmatics


Idioms are verb phrases that must be interpreted figuratively, such as "to bury the hatchet" (Gibbs, 1999). Recent finding suggest that the right hemisphere may have an advantage when readers comprehend language that must be understood figuratively (McDonald, 200). However, it is currently unclear how idioms are processed in the right and left hemispheres. It is possible that not all idioms are processed similarly in the hemispheres, and that several factors between idioms may affect hemispheriC processing. First, the plausibility of an idiom's literal interpretation (i.e., ambiguity) may influence processing in the hemispheres. for example, some idioms have plausible literal interpretations (such as to "break the ice" and are classified as high ambiguity idioms, whereas other idioms do not have literal interpretations (such as "to feel under the weather"_and are classified as low ambiguity idioms (Titone &Connine) 1999) Second, the extent to which an idiom's literal meaning contributes to its figurative meaning (i.e., transparency) may influence hemispheric processing during idiom comprehension. For example, "to blaze a trail" is high in transparency, because "trail" relates to "blaze a trail's" figurative meaning ("to lead the way"). However, "to kick the bucket" is low in transparency, because no word in "to kick the bucket" relates to the figurative meaning ("to die")(Titone & Connine, 1999). Third, of the level of familiarity of an idiom may influence the hemispheric processing of idioms. For example, some idioms are encountered more frequently and are more easily recognizable than other idioms (Titone&Connine, 1999). Thus, the current set of experiments investigated how idioms that differ in the level of ambiguity, transparency, or familiarity are processed in the left and right cerebral hemispheres during text comprehension. To investigate how idioms are processed in the cerebral hemispheres, the current study used a divided visual field paradigm to investigate how participants respond to idiom-related targets works presented to either visual field-hemisphere. In Experiment 1, participants read texts containing high ambiguity idioms, low ambiguity idioms, or texts with no idioms. Next participants made lexical decision to related target words presented to the left visual field-right hemisphere or the right visual field-left hemisphere. In Experiment 2, participants read texts containing high transparency idioms, low transparency idioms, or texts with no idioms. In Experiment 3, participants read texts containing familiar idioms, less familiar idioms, or texts with no idioms. Findings from the current study showed evidence that the right and left hemispheres process idioms that differ in their levels of ambiguity or transparency differently, but no hemispheric differences were found between familiar and less familiar idioms. Greater facilitation was found for low ambiguity idioms in the left hemisphere than in the right hemisphere, but greater facilitation was found for high ambiguity idioms in the right hemisphere than in the left hemisphere. Facilitation was greater for high transparency idioms in the left hemisphere than the right hemisphere, but no hemispheric differences were evident for low transparency idioms. Finally, greater facilitation was evident in the left hemisphere for both familiar and less familiar idioms compared to the right hemisphere. These finding suggest that the left hemisphere may be dominant when readers process high ambiguity idioms. Specifically, the figurative meaning of high transparency idioms and low ambiguity idioms seems to be easily accessible and highly related to the idiom's figurative meaning, because the left hemisphere has an advantage for accessible, highly related meanings, because the left hemisphere has an advantage for accessible, highly related meanings (Beeman et al., 1994). In contrast, the figurative meaning of high ambiguity idioms may be less accessible than the figurative meaning of low ambiguity idioms, because the right hemisphere has an advantage when readers need to select one of several potential meanings (Giora, 2003;Tompkins, 2001).