Recently, I read about a North Carolina man who purchased a case of expensive rare cigars and insured them against fire. Within a month, having smoked his entire stockpile, and yet to make a single premium payment on the policy, the man filed a claim against the insurance company complaining that he'd lost the cigars in "a series of small fires." The insurance company refused to pay, citing the obvious reason that the man had consumed the cigars in a normal fashion. However, the man sued and won! The judge in the case ruled that because the company had both warranted that the cigars were insurable, and insured the cigars against fire, they were obligated to compensate the insured for his loss. Rather than endure a lengthy and costly appeal process, the insurance company accepted the judge's ruling and paid the man $15,000 for the rare cigars he lost in "the fires." After the man cashed his check, however, the insurance company had him arrested on 24 counts of arson.
The fact that the very same incident can be construed as smoking a cigar, the loss of valuable property in a fire, and a criminal act of arson is of immense interest to me. My research addresses what sorts of representations and processes underlie transactions such as the one described above. A complete understanding must address factors which range from the macro-level -- the cultural origin of concepts such as smoking, fires, and arson and the extent to which they are socially negotiated and constructed in the courtroom -- all the way to the micro-level of the neural computations which subserve an individual's understanding of the scenario. Because I believe that research methods should be dictated by the issues, rather than research issues being dictated by available methods, I have employed a variety of techniques in my research.These include techniques as disparate as discourse analysis and neuroimaging. Unifying my employment of an ecclectic set of dependent measures (e.g., production data, reaction times, event-related brain potentials), is my interest in meaning construction: how people deploy their cognitive resources in order to understand and interpret objects, activities, events, and natural language utterances.
Much of my earlier work has concerned the implications of the theory of conceptual blending, also known as conceptual integration for a variety of issues related to language comprehension. In blending theory, comprehension proceeds via the construction of a large number of very simple cognitive models, each in a partition of working memory known as a mental space. In spite of the partial and idealized character of individual models, people are able to build up complex understandings by setting up mappings between elements and relations in discrete cognitive models, as well as the imaginative combination of conceptual structure in disparate models. I've explored the implications of blending theory for the comprehension of metaphors, metonymy, humorous materials, and persuasive rhetoric. Recent work has addressed the literal- nonliteral distinction and conceptual blending theory.
Grady, J., Oakley, T., & Coulson, S. (1999). Conceptual Blending and Metaphor. In R. Gibbs (Ed.) Metaphor in Cognitive Linguistics. Amsterdam & Philadelphia: John Benjamins. HTML Version
Coulson, S. (2000). Semantic Leaps: Frame-shifting and Conceptual Blending in Meaning Construction. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Excerpt
Coulson, S. & Oakley, T. (2000). Blending Basics. Cognitive Linguistics11-3/4 PDF Version
Coulson, S. (2003). Reasoning and rhetoric:
Conceptual blending in political and religious rhetoric. In Elzbieta H. Oleksy
& Barbara Lewandowska-Tomaszczyk (Eds.) Research and Scholarship in Integration Processes.
Lodz, Poland: Lodz University Press, pp. 59-88.
Coulson, S. (In Press). What's so funny: Conceptual Blending in Humorous Examples. In V. Herman, (Ed.) The Poetics of Cognition: Studies of Cognitive Linguistics and the Verbal Arts. Cambridge University Press. HTMLVersion
Coulson, S. & Oakley, T. (In Press). Blending and coded meaning: Literal and figurative meaning in cognitive semantics. Journal of Pragmatics. (manuscript) PDF Version
Coulson, S. & Oakley, T. (In Press). Purple Persuasion: Conceptual Blending and Deliberative Rhetoric. In J. Luchenbroers, (Ed.) Cognitive Linguistics: Investigations across languages, fields, and philosophical boundaries. Amsterdam: John H. Benjamins. HTMLVersion
Earlier work explored the psychological reality of frame-shifting in one-line jokes, semantic reanalysis that results when information must be mapped into a new frame. More recent research has attempted to further characterize this process, and to investigate whether the right hemisphere is preferentially involved in joke comprehension.
Coulson, S. & Kutas, M. (1998). Frame-shifting and sentential integration. UCSD Cognitive Science Technical Report 98-03. Postscript Version
Coulson, S. & Kutas, M. (2001). Getting it: Human event-related brain response to jokes in good and poor comprehenders. Neuroscience Letters 316: 71-74. PDF Version
Coulson, S. & Lovett, C. (2004). Handedness,
hemispheric asymmetry, and joke comprehension. Cognitive Brain Research
19: 275-288. PDF
Coulson, S., Urbach, T., & Kutas, M. (In Press). Looking back: Joke comprehension and the space structuring model. Humor. PDF Version (manuscript)
Coulson, S. & Williams, R.F. (In Press). Hemispheric asymmetries and joke comprehension. Neuropsychologia. PDF Version
Coulson, S. & Wu, Y.C. (In Press). Right
hemisphere activation of joke-related information: An event-related brain
potential study. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. PDF Version
On-going research concerns whether conceptual blending occurs in the course of on-line metaphor comprehension, and the role of the right hemisphere in these processes.
Coulson, S. (1996). The Menendez Brothers Virus: Analogical Mapping in Blended Spaces. In Adele Goldberg (Ed.) Conceptual Structure, Discourse, and Language. Palo Alto, CA: CSLI. ASCII Version
Coulson, S. & Matlock, T. (2001). Metaphor and the space structuring model. Metaphor & Symbol 16(3): 295-316. HTML Version
Coulson, S. & Van Petten, C. (2002). Conceptual Integration and Metaphor: An event-related potential study. Memory & Cognition 30: 958-968. PDF Version
Previous work has addressed concept combination from the perspective of cognitive semantics. In the future, we hope to address empirical predictions of conceptual blending theory for the comprehension of modified noun phrases.
Coulson, S. & Fauconnier, G. (1999). Fake Guns and Stone Lions: Conceptual Blending and Privative Adjectives. In B. Fox, D. Jurafsky, & L. Michaelis (Eds.) Cognition and Function in Language. Palo Alto, CA: CSLI. HTML Version
Coulson, S., King, J.W., Kutas, M. (1998a). Expect the unexpected: Event-related brain response to morphosyntactic violations. Language and Cognitive Processes13 (1): 21-58. PDF Version
Coulson, S., King, J.W., Kutas, M. (1998b). ERPs and domain specificity: Beating a straw horse. Language and Cognitive Processes 13 (6): 653-672. PDF Version
Kutas, M., Federmeier, K., Coulson, S.,
King, J.W., Muente, T.F. (2000). Language. In J.T. Cacioppo, L.G. Tassinary,
& G.G. Berntson (Eds.), Handbook of Psychophysiology, 2nd ed.
Cambridge University Press. PDF Version
Van Petten, C., Coulson, S., Plante, E., Rubin, S., & Parks, M. (1999). Timecourse of word identification and semantic integration in spoken language. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, & Cognition 25 (2): 394-417. PDF Version
Kemmer, L., Coulson, S., De Ochoa, E. & Kutas, M. (2004). Syntactic processing with aging: An event-relaed potential study. Psychophysiology 41(3):372-384. PDF Version
Coulson, S. & Federmeier, K.D. (In Press). Words in context: ERPs and the lexical/postlexical distinction. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research HTML Version
Coulson, S., Federmeier, K.D., Van Petten, C., & Kutas, M. (In Press). Right hemisphere sensitivity to word and sentence level context: Evidence from event-related brain potentials. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition. PDF Version (manuscript)