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Embodied language processing

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Embodied cognition occurs when an organism’s sensorimotor capacities (ability of the body to respond to its senses with movement), body and environment play an important role in thinking. The way in which a person’s body and their surroundings interacts also allows for specific brain functions to develop and in the future to be able to act.[1] This means that not only does the mind influence the body’s movements, but the body also influences the abilities of the mind. There are three generalizations that are assumed to be true relating to embodied cognition. A person's motor system (that controls movement of the body) is activated when (1) they observe manipulable objects, (2) process action verbs, and (3) observe another individual's movements.[2]

In order to create movement of the body, a person usually thinks (or the brain subconsciously functions) about the movement it would like to accomplish. Embodied language processing asserts that there can also be an opposite influence. This means that moving your body in a certain way will impact how you comprehend, as well as process, language - whether it is an individual word or a complete phrase or sentence. Embodied language processing suggests that the brain resources that are used for perception, action, and emotion are also used during language comprehension.[3] Studies have found that participants are faster at comprehending a sentence when the picture that goes along with it matches the actions described in the sentence.[4] Action and language about action have been found to be connected because the areas of the brain that control them overlap [3] It has been found that action can influence how a person understands a word, phrase, or sentence, but language can also impact a person's actions.

Language ProcessingEdit

Language comprehension involves three processes that overlap. [citation needed] First, words and phrases are associated with certain objects in the environment or perceived symbols. Secondly, a person must determine how they can interact with the objects; these are called affordances. For example, a chair affords sitting for a human, but not for a tree. Or a pen affords writing for a human but not for a hamster. And finally, a person must look at the different parts of the sentence to determine how the affordances combine in order to accomplish a goal. This process is called the Indexical Hypothesis. [citation needed]

To summarize this hypothesis, an understanding of language results from a simulation of the actions that are implied by the meaning of the sentence. Put more simply, meaning is based on action.[5]

Actions can also influence a person's reaction time even when it doesn't make sense with the actual meaning of the sentence. A study conducted asked participants to perform a list of actions. They were then asked to make judgments if a sentence was logical or not. Participants were faster to respond that a sentence was logical if they had performed that action previously. For example, participants were faster to determine that the metaphorical phrase "toss out some ideas" was a logical phrase after they had performed a tossing motion, even though you can't literally toss a plan.[6]

Connnection between language and emotionEdit

Some research has claimed that simulating emotions can play an important role in understanding and processing language. In one study, the researchers measured the time needed for a person to comprehend a sentence written with an implied emotion while they were in either a matching or opposite emotional state. The participants who were forced to smile responded with higher humor ratings of cartoons than participants who read these cartoons while frowning. These researchers also found that pleasant sentences were read faster when participants were smiling than when they were frowning. Unpleasant sentences were read slower when participants were smiling than when frowning. These results demonstrate that emotional cues created by the body help in language comprehension. Further research has shown that the same areas in the brain that process emotions also function during language comprehension that has an emotional connection.[7]

Other research has shown that words with a positive connotation, for example: love, are identified faster when the identification process includes an approach action (flexing an arm) than when the action is a withdrawal action (arm extension).[7]

Emotional stimulation affects language comprehension within a sentence or a phrase, but has not been shown to facilitate language comprehension on a single word basis. Whereas a person's motor (action) system influences understanding for both individual word as well as entire sentences [7]

Experiential Trace HypothesisEdit

Experiential Trace Hypothesis states that each time we interact with the world, traces of that particular experience are left in our brain.[8] These traces can be accessed again when a person thinks of words or sentences that remind them of that experience. Additionally, these traces in our brain are linked to the action that they are related to.[8] Words and sentences become those cues that retrieve these traces from our mind. Researchers have studied if the previous experience with a word, such as its location (up or down) in space, affects how people understand and then respond to that word.[9] In one experiment, researchers hypothesized that if reading an object word also activates a location that is linked to that noun, then the following action response should be compatible with that association.[9] They found that participants were faster to push a button higher than another button when the word was associated with being "up" or "above" than when the button was lower than the other for words associated with "up" and "above". The results of this study displayed that participants were faster to respond when the location of the word and the action they had to perform were similar. This demonstrates that language processing and action are connected. This research also found that the location information of a word is automatically activated after seeing the word.[9] In a similar study, it was discovered that participants were equally as fast at responding to words that were associated with either an upward or downward location when the buttons to respond to these words were horizontal - meaning that the experiential trace effect was ruled out when the responding action did not link to either of the locations that were activated.[4]

Word ActivationEdit

One theory by researchers is that when a person processed different words, the location of those words is also called to mind based on past experience with those words. For example, if a person thinks about an airplane, they also think about the sky and the direction "up". Whereas, if a person thinks about the word snail, they also think about the ground and the downward direction. There is research that provides evidence that previous experiences with words will affect how they are processed. As a result, movement associated with these words is also automatically processed simultaneously when these words are being processed. For example, the action word ‘jump,’ produces greater brain activity levels than a more abstract verb such as ‘feel'.[3] Other studies have demonstrated that reading an object name interferes with how a person plans on grasping that object.[10] It was also found that similar words can prime similar actions. Playing the piano and using a typewriter both utilize similar motor actions; these words prime each other in a word decision task.[10] These studies have concluded that activation of motor decisions occur automatically when exposed to action to action-related words.[10]

Action-Sentence Compatibility Effect (ACE)Edit

Sentence processing can activate motor neurons based on the actions referred to in the sentence. In one study, researchers asked participants to make judgments on whether a sentence was sensible or not. For example, "You handed Courtney the notebook" versus "Courtney handed you the notebook". They asked participants in one condition to push a button farther away from their body if the sentence was logical and a button close to their body when it wasn't logical. The results of this study demonstrated that participants were faster at pushing the "sentence is logical" button when the action in the sentence matched the action required by them to push the correct button.[7] This means if the sentence read "you handed Courtney the notebook", the participants were faster to push the button that was farther away from them when this button meant the sentence was logical. The depicted motion in these sentences affected the amount of time required to understand the sentences that described the motion that is in the same direction. This effect has been shown to apply to sentences that describe concrete actions (putting a book on a shelf) as well as more abstract actions (you told the story to the policeman).[5] The Action-Compatibility Effect also states that the brain resources used to plan and carry out actions are also used in language comprehension; therefore, if an action implied in a sentence is different than the suggested response, there is interference within these brain resources.[5]

Another study demonstrated that the areas in people's brains that control a person's leg are activated even when just reading the word "kick". The areas in their brains related to hands were activated when reading the word "pick". This study provides further evidence that motor areas in the brain linked to motion are also activated when processing words and sentences related to that motion.[7] There is evidence using recordings of brain activity that people are faster at using their hands when they read a sentence about hands rather than if they are asked to respond to this sentence with their foot and vice versa.[11]

Actions emphasize meaningEdit

Many studies have shown how body movements and speech can be combined to emphasize meaning (often called gesturing). A person can observe the actions of another to help them comprehend what that person is saying.[6] For example, if a person is pointing repeatedly, it helps the listener to understand that the direction being inferred is very important; whereas if it was a casual point in the general direction, the location of the object may not be as necessary to comprehend what the speaker is saying. Another example may be the stomping of one’s foot. This can help the listener to understand the anger and frustration being conveyed by the speaker.[citation needed]


Many studies have demonstrated that people’s understanding of words and sentences can influence their movements and actions as well as the opposite – peoples’ actions can influence how quickly they can comprehend a word or sentence. This knowledge is important for many reasons. One study looked at the impact of embodied cognition in a classroom setting to facilitate and enhance language learning. For a child, there is a difference between oral language learning and reading. In oral language learning, the mapping between a symbol (word) and the object is common - often brought about by gesturing to the object.[12] However, when a child is learning to read, they focus on the letter-sound combinations and the correct pronunciation of the words. Usually, the object the words are referring to, aren't immediately connected with the word so an association between the word and object isn't immediately made.[12] The researchers of this study suggest the Moved by Reading intervention which consists of two parts - Physical Manipulation stage and an Imagined Manipulation stage.[12] In physical manipulation, the child reads a sentence and then is instructed to act out that sentence with available toys.[12] This forces the child to connect words with objects and their actions. In the imagined manipulation stage, the child reads the sentence and is then asked to imagine how they would interact with toys to act out the sentence.[12] They studied this further and discovered that it is possible for these children to still benefit from the effects of embodied cognition when they manipulate objects on a computer screen.[12] This embodied cognition software can help children facilitate language comprehension.[citation needed]

See alsoEdit


  1. Cowart, M. (2005, Jul. 8 ). Embodied Cognition.
  2. Mahon, B. Z, and A. Caramazza. (2008). A critical look at the embodied cognition hypothesis and a new proposal. Journal of Physiology - Paris, 102 pp. 59-70.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Rueschemeyer, S. et al. (2010). Effects of Intentional Motor Actions on Embodied Language Processing. Experimental Psychology, 57 (4), pp. 260-266. doi:10.1027/1618-3169/a000031
  4. 4.0 4.1 Zwann, R. A. (2002). Language Comprehenders Mentally Represent the Shape of Objects. Psychological Science, 13 (2), pp. 168-171
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 Glenberg, A. M, and M. Kaschak. (2002). Grounding Language in Action. Psychnomic Bulletin & Review, 9 (3), pp. 558-565.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Gibbs, R. W. (2006). Language and Communication. Embodiement and Cognitive Science, pp. 158-207.
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 Havas, D. A. et al. (2007). Emotion simulation during language comprehension. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 14 (3), pp. 436-441.
  8. 8.0 8.1 Zwaan R.A. & Pecher, D. The grounding of cognition: The role of perception and action in memory, language, and thinking. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Lachmair, M. et al. (2011). Root versus roof: automatic activation of location information during word processing. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 18 pp. 1180-1188. doi:10.3758/s13423-001-0158-x
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Fischer, M., & Zwann, R. (2008). Embodied language: A review of the role of the motor system in language comprehension. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61(6), 825-850. doi:10.1080/17470210701623605
  11. Buccino, G., Riggio, L., Melli, G., Binkofski, F., Gallese, V., & Rizzolatti, G. (2005). Listening to action-related sentences modulates the activity of the motor system: A combined TMS and behavioral study. Brain Research. Cognitive Brain Research, 24(3), 355-363.2005-11181-00110.1016/j.cogbrainres.2005.02.020. 10.1016/j.cogbrainres.2005.02.020
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 Glenberg, A. M, and A. Goldberg. (2011). Improving early reading comprehension using embodied CAI. Instructional Science, 39 pp. 27-39. doi:10.1007/s11251-009-9096-7
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