Hemispheric differences in processing the literal interpretation of idioms: Converging evidence from behavioral and fMRI studies

Nira Mashal*, Miriam Faust, Talma Hendler, Mark Jung-Beeman

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The present study examined the role of the left (LH) and right (RH) cerebral hemispheres in processing alternative meanings of idiomatic sentences. We conducted two experiments using ambiguous idioms with plausible literal interpretations as stimuli. In the first experiment we tested hemispheric differences in accessing either the literal or the idiomatic meaning of idioms for targets presented to either the left or the right visual field. In the second experiment, we used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to define regional brain activation patterns in healthy adults processing either the idiomatic meaning of idioms or the literal meanings of either idioms or literal sentences. According to the Graded Salience Hypothesis (GSH, Giora, 2003), a selective RH involvement in the processing of nonsalient meanings, such as literal interpretations of idiomatic expressions, was expected. Results of the two experiments were consistent with the GSH predictions and show that literal interpretations of idioms are accessed faster than their idiomatic meanings in the RH. The fMRI data showed that processing the idiomatic interpretation of idioms and the literal interpretations of literal sentences involved LH regions whereas processing the literal interpretation of idioms was associated with increased activity in right brain regions including the right precuneus, right middle frontal gyrus (MFG), right posterior middle temporal gyrus (MTG), and right anterior superior temporal gyrus (STG). We suggest that these RH areas are involved in semantic ambiguity resolution and in processing nonsalient meanings of conventional idiomatic expressions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)848-860
Number of pages13
Issue number7
StatePublished - Jul 2008


FundersFunder number
US-Israel Binational Science Foundation
Bloom's Syndrome Foundation2003317


    • Ambiguity
    • Idioms
    • Literal
    • Salience
    • fMRI


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