Hemispheric involvement in the processing of Chinese idioms: An fMRI study

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Although the left hemisphere is believed to handle major language functions, the role of the right hemisphere in language comprehension remains controversial. Recently researchers have investigated hemispheric language processing with figurative language materials (e.g., metaphors, jokes, and idioms). The current study capitalizes on the pervasiveness and distinct features of Chinese idioms to examine the brain mechanism of figurative language processing. Native Chinese speakers performed a non-semantic task while reading opaque idioms, transparent idioms, and non-idiomatic literal phrases. Whole-brain analyses indicated strong activations for all three conditions in an overlapping brain network that includes the bilateral inferior/middle frontal gyrus and the temporo-parietal and occipital-temporal regions. The two idiom conditions elicited additional activations in the right superior parietal lobule and right precuneus. Item-based modulation analyses further demonstrated that activation amplitudes in the right angular gyrus, right superior parietal lobule and right precuneus, as well as left inferior temporo-occipital cortex, are negatively correlated with the semantic transparency of the idioms. These results suggest that both hemispheres are involved in idiom processing but they play different roles. Implications of the findings are discussed in light of theories of figurative language processing and hemispheric functions.