Conventional metaphors elicit greater real-time engagement than literal paraphrases or concrete sentences

Serena K. Mon, Mira Nencheva, Francesca M.M. Citron, Casey Lew-Williams, Adele E. Goldberg

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Conventional metaphors (e.g., a firm grasp on an idea) are extremely common. A possible explanation for their ubiquity is that they are more engaging, evoking more focused attention, than their literal paraphrases (e.g., a good understanding of an idea). To evaluate whether, when, and why this may be true, we created a new database of 180 English sentences consisting of conventional metaphors, literal paraphrases, and concrete descriptions (e.g., a firm grip on a doorknob). Extensive norming matched differences across sentence types in complexity, plausibility, emotional valence, intensity, and familiarity of the key phrases. Then, using pupillometry to study the time course of metaphor processing, we predicted that metaphors would elicit greater event-evoked pupil dilation compared to other sentence types. Results confirmed the predicted increase beginning at the onset of the key phrase and lasting seconds beyond the end of the sentence. When metaphorical and literal sentences were compared directly in survey data, participants judged metaphorical sentences to convey “richer meaning,” but not more information. We conclude that conventional metaphors are more engaging than literal paraphrases or concrete sentences in a way that is irreducible to difficulty or ease, amount of information, short-term lexical access, or downstream inferences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number104285
JournalJournal of Memory and Language
StatePublished - Dec 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Artificial Intelligence


  • Comprehension
  • Focused attention
  • Meaning
  • Metaphor
  • Pupil dilation
  • Sentence processing


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