Context-dependent Semantic Processing in the Human Brain: Evidence from Idiom Comprehension

Joost Rommers* (Corresponding Author), Ton Dijkstra, Marcel Bastiaansen

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

110 Citations (Scopus)


Language comprehension involves activating word meanings and integrating them with the sentence context. This study examined whether these routines are carried out even when they are theoretically unnecessary, namely, in the case of opaque idiomatic expressions, for which the literal word meanings are unrelated to the overall meaning of the expression. Predictable words in sentences were replaced by a semantically related or unrelated word. In literal sentences, this yielded previously established behavioral and electrophysiological signatures of semantic processing: semantic facilitation in lexical decision, a reduced N400 for semantically related relative to unrelated words, and a power increase in the gamma frequency band that was disrupted by semantic violations. However, the same manipulations in idioms yielded none of these effects. Instead, semantic violations elicited a late positivity in idioms. Moreover, gamma band power was lower in correct idioms than in correct literal sentences. It is argued that the brain's semantic expectancy and literal word meaning integration operations can, to some extent, be “switched off” when the context renders them unnecessary. Furthermore, the results lend support to models of idiom comprehension that involve unitary idiom representations.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)762-776
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Issue number5
Early online date28 Mar 2013
Publication statusPublished - May 2013

Bibliographical note

We thank Lonneke Bücken and Kevin Lam for running Experiment 1, the research assistants of the Neurobiology of Language Department for their assistance with running Experiment 2, Lilla Magyari for help with some of the figures, and Francesco Vespignani and three anonymous reviewers for comments on a previous version of this article.


Dive into the research topics of 'Context-dependent Semantic Processing in the Human Brain: Evidence from Idiom Comprehension'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this