Is a Bear White in the Woods? Parallel Representation of Implied Object Color during Language Comprehension

Article excerpt

Color is undeniably important to object representations, but so too is the ability of context to alter the color of an object. The present study examined how implied perceptual information about typical and atypical colors is represented during language comprehension. Participants read sentences that implied a (typical or atypical) color for a target object and then performed a modified Stroop task in which they named the ink color of the target word (typical, atypical, or unrelated). Results showed that color naming was facilitated both when ink color was typical for that object (e.g., bear in brown ink) and when it matched the color implied by the previous sentence (e.g., bear in white ink following Joe was excited to see a bear at the North Pole). These findings suggest that unusual contexts cause people to represent in parallel both typical and scenario-specific perceptual information, and these types of information are discussed in relation to the specialization of perceptual simulations.

Color is an important part of our conceptual representation of objects. Knowledge about color typicality allows us to recognize objects with highly diagnostic colors (e.g., banana or fire engine) more rapidly than objects with no particular diagnostic color (e.g., dog or lamp: Tanaka & Presnell, 1999). Indeed, our conceptual knowledge of an object's typical color is more influential in object recognition than is the color actually perceived (Mapelli & Behrmann, 1997; Tanaka & Presnell, 1999). For example, when participants are primed with a picture of a purple apple (i.e., displayed in an atypical color), they are faster to recognize the word cherry (which shares the prime's typical color red) than they are the word blueberry (which shares the prime's displayed color purple: Joseph & Proffitt, 1996).

However, the presence of context can easily alter conceptual considerations of an object's color. For example, Medin and Shoben (1988) found that people, when asked to compare the color gray with black and with white, considered gray to be more similar to white in the context of hair, but more similar to black in the context of clouds. Similarly, Halff, Ortony, and Anderson (1976) found that people represented the color red differently for hair, wine, flag, brick, and blood, considering the color of a red flag to be more similar to a red light than to a red wine. Such context effects are not limited to simple noun-color combinations, but have also been found for larger scenarios. Research in embodied cognition has shown that people represent implied perceptual information during sentence comprehension even though doing so does not facilitate task performance (Connell, 2007; Stanfield & Zwaan, 2001; Zwaan, Stanfield, & Yaxley, 2002). In the case of color, Connell has shown that short-term representations of object color can affect people's ability to recognize objects. For example, when presented with a sentence that implied a particular color for an object (e.g., Joanne always took milk in her coffee), followed by a picture (i.e., a cup of coffee), people's speed in verifying that the object had been previously mentioned depended on whether the coffee was shown as milky brown or as straight black.

So what happens if our contextual representation of an object conflicts with our canonical knowledge about its typical state? Theories of embodied (grounded) cognition usually describe color representation as the specialization of a perceptual simulation to include color information (Barsalou, 1999, 2008; Zwaan, 2004). That is, the same neural subsystems that represent color in perception are activated to represent color detail in the conceptualization of an object; specifically, fMRI has shown the same region in the left fusiform gyrus to be implicated in both perceptual and conceptual processing of color (Simmons et al., 2007). However, there has been little discussion of how such specialization might take place if the object simulation is already, by default, specialized with a typical color. …