New paper: When a hit sounds like a kiss

I’m excited to announce that I have new paper out in the journal Brain and Language entitled “When a hit sounds like a kiss: an electrophysiological exploration of semantic processing in visual narrative.” This was a project by the first author Mirella Manfredi, who worked with me during my time in Marta Kutas’s lab at UC San Diego.

Mirella has an interest in the cognition of humor, and also wanted to know about how the brain processes different types of information, like words vs. images. So, she designed a study using “action stars”—the star shaped flashes that appear at the size of whole panels to indicate that an event happened, but not show you what it is. Into these action stars, she placed either onomatopoeia (Pow!), descriptions (Impact!), anomalous onomatopoeia or descriptions (Smooch!, Kiss!), or grawlixes (#$%?!).

We then measured people’s brainwaves for these action star panels. We found a brainwave effect that is sensitive to semantic processing (the “N400”)—how people process meaning—that suggested the anomalies were harder to understand than the congruous ones. This suggested that meaning garnered by the context of the visual sequence impacted how people processed the textual words. In addition, the grawlixes showed very little signs of this type of processing, suggesting that they don’t hold specific semantic meanings.

In addition, we found that descriptive sound effects evoked another type of brain response (a late frontal positivity) often associated with the violation of very specific expectations (like getting a slightly different word than expected, even though it might not be anomalous).

This response was fairly interesting, because we also recently showed that American comics use descriptive sound effects far less compared to onomatopoeia. What this means is that this brain response wasn’t just sensitive to certain words, but was sensitive to the low expectations for a certain type of words: descriptive sound effects in the context of comics.

Mirella and I are now continuing to collaborate on more studies about the interactions between multimodal and crossmodal information, so nice to have this one to kick things off!

You can find the paper along with all my other Downloadable Papers, or directly here (pdf).


Researchers have long questioned whether information presented through different sensory modalities involves distinct or shared semantic systems. We investigated uni-sensory cross-modal processing by recording event-related brain potentials to words replacing the climactic event in a visual narrative sequence (comics). We compared Onomatopoeic words, which phonetically imitate action sounds (Pow!), with Descriptive words, which describe an action (Punch!), that were (in)congruent within their sequence contexts. Across two experiments, larger N400s appeared to Anomalous Onomatopoeic or Descriptive critical panels than to their congruent counterparts, reflecting a difficulty in semantic access/retrieval. Also, Descriptive words evinced a greater late frontal positivity compared to Onomatopoetic words, suggesting that, though plausible, they may be less predictable/expected in visual narratives. Our results indicate that uni-sensory cross-model integration of word/letter-symbol strings within visual narratives elicit ERP patterns typically observed for written sentence processing, thereby suggesting the engagement of similar domain-independent integration/interpretation mechanisms.

Manfredi, Mirella, Neil Cohn, and Marta Kutas. 2017. When a hit sounds like a kiss: an electrophysiological exploration of semantic processing in visual narrative. Brain and Language. 169: 28-38.


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