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Action verbs are processed differently in metaphorical and literal sentences depending on the semantic match of visual primes


Language comprehension requires rapid and flexible access to information stored in long-term memory, likely influenced by activation of rich world knowledge and by brain systems that support the processing of sensorimotor content. We hypothesized that while literal language about biological motion might rely on neurocognitive representations of biological motion specific to the details of the actions described, metaphors rely on more generic representations of motion. In a priming and self-paced reading paradigm, participants saw video clips or images of (a) an intact point-light walker or (b) a scrambled control and read sentences containing literal or metaphoric uses of biological motion verbs either closely or distantly related to the depicted action (walking). We predicted that reading times for literal and metaphorical sentences would show differential sensitivity to the match between the verb and the visual prime. In Experiment 1, we observed interactions between the prime type (walker or scrambled video) and the verb type (close or distant match) for both literal and metaphorical sentences, but with strikingly different patterns. We found no difference in the verb region of literal sentences for Close-Match verbs after walker or scrambled motion primes, but Distant-Match verbs were read more quickly following walker primes. For metaphorical sentences, the results were roughly reversed, with Distant-Match verbs being read more slowly following a walker compared to scrambled motion. In Experiment 2, we observed a similar pattern following still image primes, though critical interactions emerged later in the sentence. We interpret these findings as evidence for shared recruitment of cognitive and neural mechanisms for processing visual and verbal biological motion information. Metaphoric language using biological motion verbs may recruit neurocognitive mechanisms similar to those used in processing literal language but be represented in a less-specific way.

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