Engineering creativity: Prior experience modulates electrophysiological responses to novel metaphors

Rafal Jończyk, Gül E. Kremer, Zahed Siddique, Janet G. van Hell

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


Novel metaphorical language use exemplifies human creativity through production and comprehension of meaningful linguistic expressions that may have never been heard before. Available electrophysiological research demonstrates, however, that novel metaphor comprehension is cognitively costly, as it requires integrating information from distantly related concepts. Herein, we investigate if such cognitive cost may be reduced as a factor of prior domain knowledge. To this end, we asked engineering and nonengineering students to read for comprehension literal, novel metaphorical, and anomalous sentences related to engineering or general knowledge, while undergoing EEG recording. Upon reading each sentence, participants were asked to judge whether or not the sentence was original in meaning (novelty judgment) and whether or not it made sense (sensicality judgment). When collapsed across groups, our findings demonstrate a gradual N400 modulation with N400 being maximal in response to anomalous, followed by metaphorical, and literal sentences. Between-group comparisons revealed a mirror effect on the N400 to novel metaphorical sentences, with attenuated N400 in engineers and enhanced N400 in non-engineers. Critically, planned comparisons demonstrated reduced N400 amplitudes to engineering novel metaphors in engineers relative to non-engineers, pointing to an effect of prior knowledge on metaphor processing. This reduction, however, was observed in the absence of a sentence type × knowledge × group interaction. Altogether, our study provides novel evidence suggesting that prior domain knowledge may have a direct impact on creative language comprehension.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere13630
Issue number10
StatePublished - Oct 1 2020

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Physiology (medical)
  • Physiology


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