Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience
Although the neurocognitive processes underlying the comprehension of figurative language, especially metaphors and idioms, have been studied extensively, less is known about the processing of irony. In two experiments using event-related brain potentials (ERPs), we examined the types of cognitive processes involved in the comprehension of ironic and literal sentences and their relative time course. The experiments varied in modality (auditory, visual), task demands (comprehension task vs. passive reading), and probability of stimulus occurrence. ERPs consistently revealed a large late positivity (i.e., P600 component) in the absence of an N400 component for irony compared to equivalent literal sentences independent of modality. This P600 was shown to be unaffected by the factors task demands and probability of occurrence. Taken together, the findings suggest that the observed P600 is related to irony processing, and might be a reflection of pragmatic interpretation processes. During the comprehension of irony, no semantic integration difficulty arises (absence of N400), but late inferential processes appear to be necessary for understanding ironic meanings (presence of P600). This finding calls for a revision of current models of figurative language processing.