Prof. Ahrens' linguistic research has encompassed two major areas over the past twenty years: Construction of a psycholinguistic theory of sense processing, and construction of a cognitive model to explain conceptual and novel metaphor use and processing.
For many years, linguists have debated as to whether multiple meanings are accessed in parallel or serially, and in addition, whether preceding context can influence access of lexical semantic information (i.e. whether lexical access is modular or interactive). Professor Ahrens, in a series of well-regarded studies that those who argued for an interactive approach often used timing methods that did not allow for immediate and automatic access. In particular, Ahrens (2006) demonstrated that when the visual target presentation times are 300ms, multiple access is found. Longer presentation times, however, allowed priming only for the contextually appropriate meaning. In addition, her cross-modal reaction time experiments have demonstrated that all meanings are exhaustively accessed even when preceding context allows only one correct meaning. Then, once access has occurred, the correct meaning is selected, indicating a bottom-up and modular model of lexical access in on-going sentence processing (Ahrens, 1998, 2001, 2002, 2006). These findings were the first on-line reaction time studies of sentence processing studies in Chinese, and in combination with her studies on lexical access that occurs without context (i.e. Lin and Ahrens, 2005, 2010) have set a high standard in terms of her rigor in selection of linguistic stimuli and methodological design.
Professor Ahrens’ research has also addressed the issue of sense creation. Conceptual metaphors are lexical items that have had a sense extended from a concrete source domain to a more abstract target domain. While many researchers argued that conceptual metaphors are not accessed and understood on-line, Gong and Ahrens (2007), demonstrated that the visual presentation in paragraph form allows for on-line integration and access of conceptual metaphors, while line-by-line presentations set up expectations for new information, inhibiting conceptual metaphor access.
In addition, through corpora-based analyses of conceptual metaphor data Professor Ahrens has demonstrated that conceptual mappings from the source to target domain have an underlying reason, or Mapping Principle and shown that frequency is the driving factor in determining this underlying reason (Ahrens, Chung, & Huang, 2004; Gong, Ahrens & Huang, 2008). Moreover, Ahrens and Lee (2009) demonstrated for the first time that conceptual metaphor models can also be verified through lexical frequency patterns of keywords associated with a particular source domain. These discoveries of Mapping Principles, the Mapping Principle Constraint, and the usefulness of lexical frequency patterns have furthered our understanding of conceptual metaphor use and have enabled researchers to more easily evaluate and verify their conceptual metaphor analyses.
Mapping Principles, furthermore, also make predictions about how novel metaphors are processed. For example, her research has demonstrated through off-line and on-line psycholinguistic experiments that conceptual metaphors vary in their degree of novel-ness depending on whether or not they follow their Mapping Principles (Ahrens, 2010). A functional MRI study on conceptual metaphors, the first of its kind in Chinese, has demonstrated that metaphors only recruit a small amount of right hemisphere resources, while very novel metaphors recruit the frontal and temporal resources bilaterally (Ahrens et al. 2007).