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How the body shapes language in the brain
Do people with different kinds of bodies understand language differently? Theories of embodied cognition suggest we understand action language by simulating actions in our minds. Understanding a verb like ‘throw’ involves unconsciously preparing for throwing, using brain areas that allow us to plan and execute this action. Researchers at the MPI for Psycholinguistics and the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour (Radboud University Nijmegen) have discovered that right- and left-handers, who perform actions differently, also use different areas of the brain for representing the meanings of action verbs. Their results will be published in Psychological Science in January 2010.
When participants were understanding hand action verbs (grasp, throw), activation in premotor cortex was greater in the left hemisphere for right-handers, but in the right hemisphere for left-handers.
Dec 8, 2009
Researchers Roel Willems, Peter Hagoort, and Daniel Casasanto reasoned that if language understanding involves mentally simulating our own actions, then action words should have different meanings for people with different bodily characteristics, who perform actions in systematically different ways. To test this prediction, they used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare brain activity during action verb understanding in right- and left-handers.
Mind and hands
Participants read words for actions that people usually perform with their dominant hands (scribble, toss) and actions they perform with other parts of their bodies (kneel, giggle). Participants didn’t perform these actions, they just read about them. Yet, areas of their premotor cortex were activated as if they were preparing to grasp, throw, or tickle. When right-handers read words for hand actions, they activated left-hemisphere brain areas used in planning actions with the right hand. Left-handers showed the opposite pattern, activating right-hemisphere areas used for planning left-hand actions.
Right- and left-handers perform hand actions differently, but perform other actions similarly. Accordingly, right- and left-handers' brain activity was different for language about hand actions, but similar for actions performed with other parts of the body.
These data support an idea Casasanto calls 'body-specificity' -- since the mind depends on the body, people with different kinds of bodies should think differently. This idea challenges the traditional view that concepts are universal and word meanings are the same for all speakers of a language. This study provides the first evidence that the meanings of action words are body-specific. When we understand language about actions, we simulate the actions in our minds as we would perform them with our particular bodies.
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