A Quantitative Meta-Analysis of Neuroimaging Studies of Pragmatic Language Comprehension: In Search of a Universal Neural Substrate


Pragmatics may be defined as the ability to communicate by expressing and recognizing intentions. The objective of this meta-analysis was to identify neural substrates for comprehension of pragmatic content in general, as well as the differences between pragmatic forms, and to describe if there is differential recruitment of brain areas according to natural language. This meta-analysis included 48 functional magnetic resonance imaging studies that reported pragmatic versus literal language contrasts. The pragmatic forms were speech acts, metaphors, idioms, and irony. Effect Size-Signed Differential Mapping software was used to calculate the mean for all contrasts as well as for each pragmatic form, and make comparisons among all forms. Due to variations in pragmatic content configuration such as natural language, stimulus modality, and writing systems, these variations were also analyzed with subgroups' analyses. The analyses found a highly reproducible bilateral fronto-temporal and medial prefrontal cortex network for pragmatic comprehension. Each pragmatic form showed a specific convergence pattern within this bilateral network. Natural language analyses showed that fronto-temporal regions were recruited by Germanic languages, while only left frontal areas were recruited by Romance languages, and right medial prefrontal cortex by Japanese. In conclusion, pragmatic language comprehension involves classical language areas in bilateral perisylvian regions, along with the medial prefrontal cortex, an area involved in social cognition. Together, these areas could represent the "pragmatic language network". Nonetheless, when proposing a universal neural substrate for all forms of pragmatic language, the diversity among studies in terms of pragmatic form, and configuration, must be taken into consideration.